For many families across Dickinson County, the holiday season means facing the harsh reality that making the Christmas wishes of their children come true may not be possible.
But for nearly 25 years, Upper Des Moines Opportunity has been helping make Christmas just a little bit easier for area families facing hard times.
Laurie Ruf, Upper Des Moines Opportunity Center Director, says UDMO's Adopt-a-Family program has particular importance among the wide-spanning Dickinson County demographics.
"This area has such a diverge between the 'have' and the 'have nots' that I think it makes it a little tougher on kids at Christmastime," Ruf said.
She says the program helps "even the playing field," for area kids, while easing the strain of parents facing hard times.
"(Christmas) puts a lot of strain on the parents, thinking, 'how am I going to provide something for my child at this time of year?'" Ruf said. "It just takes a lot of that stress off families and just brings a lot of joy to the children."
Ruf has been with UDMO for 19 years, and says the community's willingness to choose the Adopt-a-Family program as their holiday charity has helped it achieve continued success.
"I love the concept of 'let's not exchange gifts at the office, let's adopt a family,'" Ruf said. "I have actually had parents take the kids out and the kids do the shopping for somebody else. That, to me, is just as much as what it's all about -- that's what the program is for."
Help where it's needed
While the program is open to applicants who show a need for assistance during the holidays, those who benefit from the program each year are a diverse bunch, including elderly citizens, disabled residents, extended families raising multiple children, single dads and two-parent families where "after expenses, there's just not a lot left over," according to Ruf.
Some area families are facing difficult and drastically different living conditions than they may have had last Christmas.
"We have people that come from domestic violence situations, (or situations of) divorce where the kids were used to having a nice lifestyle and all of a sudden, their lifestyle changes completely overnight," Ruf said. "This is hard for some of those kids (and) it certainly means a lot for the older kids."
Ruf also says those who apply for the Adopt-a-Family program are also able to find out about other services, such as fuel assistance, that they may be eligible for.
Sondra Vitito, a coordinator of the Adopt-a-Family program in Dickinson County, has been able to see firsthand the grateful faces of adopted families.
"Some of them indicate that if it wasn't for the program they wouldn't be able to give their children gifts," Vitito said.
While Ruf stresses the privacy of the Adopt-a-Family program, she also encourages community members to keep those in need in mind for referrals.
"We are very, very strict about confidentiality in our office and we want that stressed, but that doesn't mean that someone can't call us and say 'hey, I know this family that might need some help,' then we can send an application to them," Ruf said. "They wouldn't know who referred them, or how it happened, (but) that, to me, would be a really great service."
Rescue in a recession
Vitito says she has seen an increase in families applying for Christmas help during the past few years, which she attributes to economic downturn.
"Now, with the recession, some people have lost their jobs," Vitito said. "I know that's a big thing and I know it took awhile but we're starting to see it more and more."
Vitito and Ruf know changes in economic structures for families across the county may also make the chance to adopt a family less feasible.
Ruf encourages individuals who are still looking to contribute to consider purchasing their gifts as part of a group. She also welcomes monetary donations of any amount, and explains that the donations are kept in the county, used to help adopt families that did not get selected, or to make sure the families that were adopted have an even showing of gifts under the tree. In other instances, the money has been used to help pay utility bills or provide food certificates or other services to cash-strapped families during the holiday season.
Better to give?
Vitito says, in Dickinson County, the Adopt-a-Family impact is highly visible.
"We've had people in here so thankful that they tear up because it is something that helps the little ones because they don't understand that there's just not money for Christmas," Vitito said.
Ruf admits says she's as inspired by the gratefulness of those who receive as she is by the generosity of who give.
"It's not the 'real monied' people that are (donating)," Ruf said. "It's the everyday people in our community, frankly. I know we've got some tremendous deep pockets and it's just the everyday people. That's what blows me away. And every year they do it again. They do it over and over again."
Thanks from 'Adopted Families' in Dickinson County
"I'm so grateful for this program. As a single mom, I do work, but still just don't quite make ends meet. It means everything to my children and we thank all of you angels."
"It means that my children will have a Christmas."
"This means a lot -- to have the extra caring from the community."
2010 Adopt-a-Family Program: Dickinson County
If you have an individual or family you would like to refer, or if you would like to apply, call or stop by the Dickinson County UDMO office for an application or more information.
1575 18th St.
"We've had people in here so thankful that they tear up because it is something that helps the little ones because they don't understand that there's just not money for Christmas."
-- Sondra Vitito, Adopt-a-Family Coordinator, Dickinson County
UDMO Adopt a Family program returns in 2010
As one of the largest Christmas programs in the area, Upper Des Moines Opportunity, Inc. (UDMO) has organized the Adopt a Family for children, the elderly and disabled Dickinson County residents for many years. Those wishing to adopt a family should select one from the list and contact UDMO at (712) 336-1112. Having a first and second choice for a family to adopt is recommended. There is still time for families wanting to apply to be on the list as well. Contact UDMO at the same number.
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