ALPENA - This Christmas, families in need in four counties once again will be helped through the works of all who make the Christmas Wish List happen.
The 35-year-old program connects willing donors to struggling families, especially those recommended by schools and social workers, Alpena Volunteer Center Director Kathleen Richards-Bruski said. Each year, the Christmas Wish List sends a heads-up to a mailing list of roughly 700 donors. From there, donors who want to participate will call the Volunteer Center to say "I'm in," and tell what they can give that year. That donor is matched up with a family or individual on the list of hundreds of recipients.
Professionals who work with families in difficult circumstances supply the program with recipients' names, Richards-Bruski said. They include school success workers, social workers, some school administrators and certain teachers in Alcona, Alpena, Montmorency and Presque Isle counties.
By taking these referrals, the wish list can remain confidential, Richards-Bruski said. There's no direct contact with the receiving families, but donors do have a first name, age and likes and dislikes to make sure their gift is the right one.
"When you know those kind of things, you feel a personal investment, and because it's specialized, it's personalized," she said.
The Christmas Wish List focuses primarily on clothing like coats, snow pants, boots, sweaters, sweatshirts and jeans, Richards-Bruski said. Some donors provide cash, used by volunteers to meet any unmatched gift requests. Cash donations also buy food baskets and grocery gift certificates for recipients.
"A lot of us don't realize, when you're in this kind of circumstance, to have new clothes that are kind of cool, that's huge, especially for teenagers," she said.
Starting Monday and continuing through Friday, donors begin bringing their gifts in to the Volunteer Center, Richards-Bruski said. From there, it takes a team of helpers to get the goods ready for pick-up on the following week.
Cathy Spencer coordinates the volunteers who collect the gifts as donors bring them in, she said. They check everything coming in, and check them again before going out with the referring organizations to ensure no one on the list is missed. She's been helping with the program for more than 20 years, including more than 10 in her current position.
"For me, it's a great satisfaction to know that a parent is going to be able to see their child have a Christmas," she said.
Spencer also likes how the gifts are provided to families anonymously, she said.
"When these presents are presented to children, it's as if mom and dad are giving them," she said. "It provides dignity to the family as well."
Since the Wish List operates alongside so many other charitable organizations, Richards-Bruski and others with the program get help from the Christmas Assistance Clearinghouse. Maj. Joan Stokerof the Alpena Salvation Army, said this master list is a collaborative effort between the Christmas Wish List, the Salvation Army and other participating groups to avoid providing duplicate services to Alpena County families.
The confidential list also helps to ensure participating organizations that those who are signed up for help - whether by the recipient's doing or not - are getting what they need this year, Stoker said.
Families "can still apply for food and toys from the Salvation Army, or they can contact the (Vietnam Veterans of America), but that way families in Alpena County will receive toys from only one source," she said. "Donors can be confident that, as we make the system work, their donations are being used in the best way possible."
While donors and volunteers get the satisfaction of helping those in need, Richards-Bruski is glad to be a part of the program as well, she said.
"Of all the programs we do, the ones that help people, like this one, are the ones that give me the most pleasure," she said.
Jordan Travis can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5688.