Helping Hands: Organization reaches out to low-income families

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Jackie Stoaks, Overland Park, knows what it’s like to be a single mom struggling during the holidays. 
 
About 30 years ago Stoaks found herself jobless with a 3-year-old daughter right before Christmas. Stoaks she worried she would not be able to give her daughter much of a Christmas, but the Johnson County Christmas Bureau took away her worries. 
 
“Back in the very early ’80s I was unemployed and I received a card in the mail inviting me to come and shop at the Christmas Bureau,” Stoaks says. “I was a single parent and they provided me with Christmas gifts and some clothing for my daughter.”
 
Meeting the need
Johnson County Christmas Bureau has served low-income families during the holiday season for more than 50 years. The Christmas Bureau sets up a store each year. Individuals and families who qualify for the Christmas Bureau’s services make an appointment at the Holiday Shop, where they are able to pick out gifts, clothing, food and personal care items for their family. 
 
“For a lot of our clients this is the first time they have needed help,” says Barb McNeile, Johnson County Christmas Bureau executive director. “It can be a humbling experience.”
 
The bureau helps individuals and families of all faiths. People do not have to celebrate Christmas to visit the Holiday Shop.
 
Women from the American Association of University Women started what became the Johnson County Christmas Bureau. They provided gifts for families through an adopt-a-family model. 
 
Johnson County Christmas Bureau Board President Jim Owens says the first year the women only adopted a few families but each year they provided support for more and more families. The group officially formed the Johnson County Christmas Bureau in 1960.
 
In 1977 the organization had its first Holiday Shop so clients could have choice in what gifts they received for their families.
 
Stoaks enjoyed her experience at the shop.
 
“I was amazed at the variety of things that I got to chose from,” she says. “I remember how kind and patient the volunteer was when I went through that stack of stockings to find the perfect one for my daughter.”
 
To receive assistance from the Christmas Bureau, individuals and families cannot make more than 150 percent of the federal poverty limit, which is about $33,000 for a family of four.
 
McNeile says the Christmas Bureau receives referrals for its services from nonprofit agencies throughout Johnson County. The majority of individuals and families who shop at the bureau’s Holiday Shop receive services from the state department of Social and Rehabilitative Services, but McNeile says the bureau also has clients that make too much to qualify for state services.
 
Some of the people who are in the most need have not qualified for public assistance,” Owens says. “They fall between the cracks.”
 
Last year the group served 3,303 families and 11,879 individuals. 
 
Johnson County Young Matrons member Maryln Golub volunteers for the Christmas Bureau each year.
 
“The Johnson County Christmas Bureau is a great organization,” Golub says. “One thing I’m proud of about the Christmas Bureau is that they give groceries and personal care items too.”
 
The variety of items at the Holiday Shop provides clients with items that they need and gifts that make the holidays special.
 
Seeing the demand
When Stoaks shopped at the Christmas Bureau’s Holiday Shop she found herself between jobs, a situation that has become all too common during this recession. 
 
“It wasn’t as if I wasn’t willing to work. I had been working two jobs up until that fall,” she says.
 
The restaurant Stoaks had served at shut down and the other company she worked for downsized all within a matter of months. Stoaks went back to school and became a dental hygienist. Now employed, she volunteers with the Christmas Bureau. She says she can relate to the single mothers she sees enter the shop. 
 
But it’s not just single parents who need help in these tough economic times. Owens recalls a couple who both had master’s degrees and good-paying jobs who needed help from the Christmas Bureau after their companies downsized.
 
Johnson County, the most affluent county in the Kansas City metro, may not seem like an area of great need. But poverty in Johnson County has risen dramatically since the recession. According to data from United Community Services, individuals and families below the poverty level in Johnson County has increased by about 140 percent since 2000. A family of four would make $22,000 per year or less to be considered below the poverty level. In Johnson County 35,800 individuals fell below the poverty line in 2010, compared to 15,300 in 2000. 
 
“I would say that the need is great,” Stoaks says.
 
She’s seen a change in the demographics at the Holiday Shop since the recession.
 
“In 2008 it wasn’t just young families, it was people who had teenage children who had just fallen on hard times,” Stoaks says.
 
Families who have lost their primary incomes, or in some cases both incomes, are not likely to have extra money to spend on the holidays. And the Christmas Bureau exists to ensure that those families are able to have a happy holiday season despite the obstacles they currently face, Owens says.
 
Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas helps the Christmas Bureau with the application process. Kim Brabits, Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas emergency assistance director, says the need in the area continues to grow.
 
“We’ve seen an increase in people who are coming to us for the first time and who have never had to have services before. We are seeing that in our food pantry and people who are coming in for emergency assistance.”
 
Brabits says the Christmas Bureau’s Holiday Shop allows her organization to focus its resources on other areas of help for those in need, such as rent and utility assistance. 
 
“We have one of the fastest growing poverty rates in Johnson County. We’ve been hit hard by people who have never had to navigate the system before.”
 
Owens says the Christmas Bureau anticipates 12,500 clients will receive gifts through the Holiday Shop this year. 
 
Spreading the joy
The Christmas Bureau’s Holiday Shop is open to clients Dec. 2-10 at the Great Mall of the Great Plains in Olathe, Kan. About 3,000 volunteers help with the Holiday Shop each year. 
 
Golub says the joy she receives from helping others is one reason she continues to volunteer each year.
 
“It’s people who are out there working hard and it’s hard to get by with what they make. It’s all sorts of people, but a lot of them are people who fall through the cracks.” 
 
Stoaks says her and her daughter’s Christmas would not have been as festive when she was unemployed had she not had help from the Christmas Bureau. 
 
“As a single parent I was really frugal and I didn’t have a lot of the extra things,” Stoaks says. “They provided Christmas wrap, which was pretty much a luxury at that time.”
 
Stoaks wants to provide hope to single parents and the unemployed who come through the Holiday Shop. She survived her time of financial uncertainty, but she said she will never forget the help she received from the Christmas Bureau.
 
“All of the volunteers try to be as kind and respectful of the shoppers as they can. There is a level of dignity with the Christmas Bureau and I find that very admirable.”

 

Comments

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