UNION COUNTY, N.C. — In an old Sears department store in Union County, a group of Santa’s helpers are hard at work trying to create Christmas magic for families in need.
This year alone, the Union County Christmas Bureau is expecting to help 1,875 families in need this Christmas with gifts and supplies for holiday meals.
Last year, the bureau helped an estimated 2,100 families.
What You Need To Know
Christmas Bureau helped more than 2,000 families last year, the most in a decade
This year, application window was extended to accomodate high demand
Gifts and food were distributed
Combined, the number of families requesting help is the most volunteers have seen in roughly a decade.
“Many of the families, when they would apply, would always mention, ‘My spouse is out of work because his company is closed due to COVID,’ or ‘We’ve been — my husband’s been sick or my children have been sick and they’re home from school and I haven’t been able to work.’ ‘Cause a lot of kids weren’t going to school, so they were home and a lot of parents couldn’t work ’cause they needed to be home with their children,” said Gloria Haney, senior volunteer services coordinator for Union County.
Haney, who oversees the bureau, said this year they extended the deadline for families to apply for the help, since there was so much demand.
“It’s not the most we’ve ever seen, but it’s the most that we have seen in probably the past decade,” Haney said. “It was definitely attributable to COVID.”
The bureau, which began distributing gifts and food December 20, has existed since the late 1970s.
Haney said it all started when the county’s human services department realized many families asked for extra help with power bills and rent payments in January and February. Eventually, the county realized it was because many families spent money trying to give their kids a good Christmas the month before. So, they decided it was easier to get the public’s help raising Christmas money, gifts and food, than it was getting them to pay power and rent bills.
“We do toys and gifts for our children, who apply, and also food for their families,” Haney said in the old Sears location, surrounded by donated toys, food and bicycles.
Families must apply for the bureau’s help and meet similar income requirements to those for food stamps and Medicaid, as well as having children living at home.
After they clear the application, Haney said volunteers sift through children’s wishlists of gifts, along with their age information, and go shopping for them among the donated gifts.
“Each child has its own bag, you put that child’s gifts in this bag and then you put their paper on it,” said volunteer Carey Jones.
Jones is a bureau veteran. She’s been coming to volunteer for nine years, with usually dozens of friends, church members and children in tow, to help sort and distribute donated gifts.
“It is truly a gift to get to come down here and do it, and give back to the community. I feel like it is as rewarding to me and my family as it is to the ones receiving this,” Jones said.
Thanks to the donations, the bureau will be able to give thousands of county children gifts under the tree this year.
“It’s so unfair for them not to have a Christmas just because their father or mother was out of a job, you know, due to sickness or whatever this year,” Jones said, referencing the COVID-19 pandemic. “I bring my children in to help me, it teaches them so much about giving back and being thankful for the blessings you have.”
In the food-sorting room, Roger Littell is no stranger to packing tape and boxes. He’s been doing it a long time.
“Eight or nine years I guess,” Littell said.
In just a few hours one morning, he and other volunteers packed up more than 200 boxes.
“We have done all of the ones you see on the wall over there over the last week, week and a half. There’s over 1,300 boxes over there,” Littell said referencing the wall of boxes to his left.
Littell, a retiree from the banking business, said his passion for connecting those in need with food started a long time ago.
“I was involved with the master gardener program and we were working on how to have a better opportunity to get food to some of the food deserts inside of our areas inside of Union County,” Littell said.
Later, a county employee he met during the gardening program asked him to help at the county’s Christmas bureau, packing up holiday meals for thousands of families.
“Doing the best we can. Doing the best we can,” Littell said while stacking more boxes.