The aroma of a turkey roasting in the oven for Thanksgiving and the sight of a pile of packages waiting to be ripped open on Christmas morning started filling the minds of many Americans the minute the Halloween decorations were packed away, maybe earlier.
They are comforting imaginings, the stuff of a Norman Rockwell painting. But for some Americans, those imagined aromas and sights are just that – -products of the imagination. There won’t be a turkey roasting in the oven for Thanksgiving or packages under the Christmas tree for far too many, including right here in Abilene.
In the Abilene Independent School District, 73 percent of students come from families that are at or below the federal poverty level, qualifying them for free or reduced-price lunches. The rate for Wylie ISD is a little over 20 percent.
But thanks to the goodness of Abilenians and programs in place through the school districts, the picture isn’t as bleak as it might be. Countless churches, nonprofits, institutions and schools do their best to make the holidays as bright as possible for Abilene’s neediest residents, particularly children.
Each December, children in Abilene Christian School go all out to help less fortunate children by accompanying adults in delivering busloads of Christmas gifts and household goods. Beginning a season of serving students in need.
“I think the families have no idea what’s coming,” said Van Gravitt, ACS secondary school principal.
That same statement could be made by administrators at Abilene’s other schools and by directors of numerous nonprofits and institutions. They are aware of the pain that parents experience during the holidays if they can’t provide meals and gifts for their children. The problem exists year-round, of course, but it hits hardest during the holidays.
Abilene’s four main school systems – AISD, Wylie, St. John’s Episcopal School, and Abilene Christian School – all have programs in place to help families in need, whether in their own system or in the larger Abilene community. Numerous community organizations and nonprofits organize their volunteers to help carry out assistance programs.
Darrin Cox is the McKinney Vento/Foster Care Liaison for the Abilene Independent School District. That means he administers the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Program, which ensures that children, no matter their residence status, get an education.
“A kid in need is a kid in need,” is the credo that Cox lives by, meaning a child in shouldn’t be judged, just cared for.
Cox’s office, tucked away in the far reaches of AISD’s downtown office complex, is stacked floor to ceiling with donated goods, from school uniforms to food to school supplies. Food items go to Love & Care Ministries, which administers the Care Pack for Kids program that provides food for children over the weekends and school breaks. The program was founded in Amarillo in 2010 by Dyron and Kelly Howell. Love & Care Ministries administers the program locally for about a half dozen school districts near Abilene.
On Fridays, qualifying children are pulled aside, out of sight of other children, and given the bags of non-perishable food to put in their backpack to take home.
“We double up the bags over the holidays,” Cox said.
Not all the children receiving the bags are identified as “homeless,” but they meet federal poverty level guidelines. Many are homeless, however. For the 2018 academic year, Cox worked with 1,395 children deemed homeless according to the guidelines of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Program. The basic definition of “homeless” according to the guidelines is any student living in:
- A motel, hotel, or weekly-rate housing
- A house or apartment with more than one family because of economic hardship or loss
- In temporary foster care or with an adult who is not the student’s parent or legal guardian
- In substandard housing (no electricity, no water, and/or no heat)
- With friends or family because the student is a runaway or an unaccompanied youth
By Day 4 of the 2019 school year, AISD already had enrolled 575 students who met one of those stipulations. By the end of the academic year, Cox expects that number to equal or surpass last year’s total of 1,395. Fortunately, Abilenians are generous with their money, time, and talent. Numerous community partners help out year-round and during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Last year, Cox partnered with a local apartment association to provide 120 Christmas baskets.
Also last year, KoolFM radio station conducted a Christmas drive to help out. All the AISD elementary schools were contacted and the requests primarily were for clothing. But Cox made sure a toy was added to each of the more than 100 bags that were assembled and delivered to homes.
“That was a lot of fun, seeing the kids light up,” Cox said. “And seeing the parents light up, too.”
Wylie ISD doesn’t have nearly the issue with students living in poverty as Abilene ISD, with about 20 percent fitting that description. But that 20 percent suffers just the same. The neediest in the early childhood program and lower grades get to take home food in their backpack every Friday, just like AISD. High school students host a party each December for about 20 selected children who get to meet Santa and his elves in the high school cafeteria.
“We target kids who look like they’re going to have a tough Christmas,” said Wylie ISD Superintendent Joey Light.
Before school lets out for the holidays, about 20 children are taken to the high school cafeteria for a humongous Christmas party. They are fed and receive toys and clothing. Their parents get wrapped gifts to take home for Christmas morning.
“It is the most exciting day,” said Assistant Superintendent Terry Hagler. “I think our high school kids enjoy it as much as the little ones.”
St. John’s Episcopal School
Thanksgiving and Christmas are perfect times for the children at St. John’s to share with those less fortunate and to experience the joy of giving, Rebecca McMillon, head of school, said in an email.
The entire school, Pre-K2 through fifth grade, participates in Mission: Thanksgiving, which is hosted annually by Love & Care Ministries. It will be the first time for some of the younger children to realize that there are people who don’t have basic needs like a warm jacket.
“When our students learn this, they open their hearts and give abundantly,” McMillon wrote.
A few students are selected to help take donations to Arrow Ford, site of Mission: Thanksgiving each year. That experience also is good, McMillon noted, because the students get to see an entire community of people volunteering.
In December, the Pre-K4 children prepare shoe boxes with gifts to send overseas. And, some classes participate in the Department of Family and Protective Services Angel Tree program. Names of children whose ages closely correspond with children at St. John’s are chosen. The students shop for the gifts and bring them to school for distribution during this season of serving students in need.
Abilene Christian School
The 2016 Frank M. Adams Award hangs on a wall at Abilene Christian School, detailing why the school was being honored for Outstanding Community Volunteer Service. The reason started in 1991 with the first Early Childhood Intervention Day. The director of the Betty Hardwick Center at the time was concerned about a large family who lived in Baird. The family consisted of 12 children who weren’t going to get Christmas presents.
The ECI program director reached out to the administrators at Abilene Christian School who developed the idea of a class adopting the family. That program has grown to seven or eight families that are assisted each Christmas. ECI chooses the families, who fill out wish lists. Usually, the list will include household and clothing needs. Often, the students and their parents provide larger items, even if they aren’t on the list, such as cribs, beds, and kitchen appliances. A day is chosen in December for the students to accompany adults to deliver the gifts. Each family is assigned to a pair of younger and older students. Delivering the gifts is a real treat for all involved.
“I think it’s very life-changing for some of our kids,” said Cindy Johnson, elementary school principal.
Several trips are made during delivery day, and often the gifts will fill the recipient’s living room. So, the children and staff gather in the yard.
“We sing to them, we pray with them,” said Gravitt, the secondary school principal.
Johnson recalled that one year, a family receiving gifts lived in a shipping container with no plumbing. It is good for the children to see that not everyone has even the basic necessities, Johnson said.
Sometimes a family receives so much that they share with other families they know who are in need – another good learning experience for the children.
“I’m always thankful it is more than they thought or hoped for,” she said.
Abilene Christian School, like St. John’s, also participates in Mission: Thanksgiving. Two first grade classes are involved, said Bud Turnage, a first-grade teacher.
“We make signs and stand and cheer and encourage others to take part in Mission: Thanksgiving,” Turnage said.
Seniors at Abilene Christian School help with transferring donations of food, clothing, and bottled water into semi-trailers. Turnage said it is good for the children to see an entire community of people, not just kids at their school, sharing Jesus’ love.
On a surprisingly mild Tuesday in August about 130 volunteers from various churches and organizations, or just individuals, gathered in a warehouse owned by Love & Care Ministries. They were grateful that for one day at least the unairconditioned warehouse wouldn’t turn into an oven. They had a lot of work ahead of them.
The volunteers lined both sides of four rows of tables, busily sorting and packing nutritious, name brand snacks into plastic bags that would then fill blue plastic bins for transportation. Their goal was to fill 3,000 plastic bags in an hour – a goal that Terry Davis, director of ministries for Love & Care, had no doubt they’d meet. He had seen it before, and he was right. The 133 volunteers got a move on, packing 3,040 bags in 45 minutes.
Every other Tuesday, volunteers show up to fill the Care Pack for Kids bags for distribution to children in Abilene and neighboring school districts.
“We’re geared up to handle about a 30-mile radius,” Davis said.
Each of the elementary schools served by the program is sponsored by a church or organization that pays for the food. Food to fill each bag costs $3.78. Among the volunteers that evening was Jessica Ambrose, secretary of the Junior League of Abilene board of directors. For years, the Junior League has sponsored a Backpack for Kids program. This year, the league joined forces with AISD, Love & Care Ministries, and the Care Pack for Kids program.
The Junior League focuses on needs “right here in our own backyard,” Ambrose said, and that is why the Backpack for Kids program is so special to members.
The schools provide children with a nutritious breakfast and lunch, but that’s only on school days. What about weekends and long holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas? Some parents skip meals so their children can eat, Ambrose said. Still, that often isn’t enough. Some kids leave school on Friday hoping that Monday arrives soon.
“They know their next meal is going to be Monday breakfast,” Ambrose said. “We’re trying to bridge that gap.”
Do you have a season of serving students in need?
By Loretta Fulton