Wednesday, December 03, 2008

those in need

This year, the Charlottetown Salvation Army has cancelled the Adopt-a-Family program. (story here) As the story says, they are still running the Christmas hamper program, where families get a hamper of food (or a grocery gift card) and a few gifts, but they have cancelled the program where companies or groups buy gifts for a particular family. As someone who has worked within a program like this, I was quite interested in this turn of events.

My first fall and winter out of university, I worked for the Salvation Army Family Services and was one of the people (lu was the other...brings back the memories doesn't it?) who screened and gathered information from families who would like to receive a Christmas hamper. There were two types of "hampers" they might get: the standard, or the adopt-a-family. The standard was a grocery gift certificate (amount calculated depending on the number of people in the household, with the idea that it would buy Christmas dinner), some gifts and some stocking stuffers for the entire family. The Adopt-a-Family hamper was whatever the group, corporation or individual felt they wanted to include in the hamper. There were "minimum" suggestions that coincided with what the standard hamper might be, but there weren't any rules on just how much should be included in the hamper.

Qualification for both programs were the same. It was strictly "need-based". There was a fancy little calculation of how much money was coming into the household each month and how much was going out. Only certain expenses qualified and could be counted (eg. heat was a countable expense, satellite TV was not), but other than need, there was no other qualification. It didn't matter if you celebrated Christmas, Hannukah, Ramadan, Christmukkah, or nothing at all. In fact, I had a woman ask me what day Christmas was that year. So dispite being a christian organization, they turned no one away.

For the most part, your inclusion into the hamper program or the adopt-a-family program was random chance. You could only be "adopted" every 3 years or something like that, so that part wasn't random, plus the choosing of the adopted families happened earlier on in the season so that the adopters had time to put their stuff together. Other than that, pretty random. (Or so my take on it was)

Most clients didn't know that there were two programs and probably had no idea whether they were an "adopt-a-family" family or a hamper family. But there were definitely exceptions. Some people came in and specifically requested that they be an "adopt-a-family" because they had been a part of it the year before and were really happy with all of the stuff they got. Others had heard of people who were adopted and wanted to be a part of it. Those people I wasn't too concerned about, I just explained that it was luck of the draw and that a family wouldn't be adopted more than once in a 3 year cycle.

I figured the two programs were fine and co-existed nicely and peacefully until one particular client. I had one woman tell me that the year before her sister's family had been adopted and her family had not. They did Christmas together and she felt very bad for her kids when they opened their "standard" toys and her sister's kids opened their video gaming system and many other things. She got a grocery gift card that was about enough for Christmas dinner. Her sister got a box full of food and several hundred dollars in grocery gift cards. This part didn't bother her much- she and her sister often did meals together, so her sister was more than happy to host a few more dinners than she usually would, but it was the looks on her kids' faces when they saw the huge difference in the types of gifts they got compared to those of their cousins. Had she known there would have been such a discrepancy, she would have been prepared for it. But she had no idea. She and her sister signed up for the program on the same day at the same time and figured they would end up with pretty much the same type of Christmas.

My heart really went out to her. I know that life isn't fair and that it is pretty normal for one sibling's family to be better off than the other and that kids need to learn eventually that life isn't fair. But her story and her situation really stuck with me and I've thought about the discrepancies in the two programs ever since. In fact, had I not already signed up to adopt-a-family with a group of friends BEFORE she came through my office, I may not have encouraged the group to participate in the program, and rather encouraged us all to just donate to the hamper program.

I don't think I'm qualified (or have the audacity) to say if the Salvation Army in Charlottetown made the right or wrong decision. I also have no idea if their programs were organized like they were the year I worked at Family Service in Calgary. I just know that, among some other organizational issues, I definitely felt that there were a few flaws in the system.

And with that, I encourage you all to donate some time, money, toys, or whatever you think you can to help out people who are more in need than you are this Christmas season. If you yourself are in need of the help, maybe just a card saying thank you, or a smile to someone who looks like he or she needs it. If you are in the position to help, there are so many ways to help both locally and abroad.

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