Volunteers wrap presents. Donors come in through the back to drop off gifts. Clients enter the front to pickup presents, sometimes by the cartload, to take home.

It’s Holiday Central at A Child’s Place’s and the volunteers aren’t elves. They’re people who make the holidays brighter for homeless children in the Charlotte area. 

Susan Lord said she volunteered when she heard about the opportunity at her church. With her children getting older and more time on her hands, she talks about volunteer work at the dinner table.

“I stress to them that we have so much that we have to share,” she said. “I think society as a whole now we have taken so much there’s going to be nothing left. We all have to take our turn . . . You have to give, and it feels good to give.”

Sandy Hamilton agrees. She has been on the board since almost the very beginning, and it’s been one of her families’ favorite charities. She said that it just makes them feel good to give, and they like getting their grandson involved with it. 

“It’s just a no brainer,” she said. “Homeless children and their families it just pulls on your heart strings.”

Founded in 1989, A Child’s Place is a nonprofit agency working to erase the impact of homelessness on children and their education. It reached 2,355 children during the 2010-2011 school year, a 45 percent increase over the year before. Laurie Schwartz, development director, said they invested in more staff to help them reach those children.

Some 4,711 homeless students are enrolled in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, a 20 percent increase over five years ago. Schwartz estimates that there are probably more because some homeless families move frequently, which makes them hard to identify.

A Child’s Place defines homeless children by the federal McKinney-Vento Act, which protects the educational rights of homeless kids.

Homeless children can be defined as living in shelters, transitional housing, “pay by the week motels,” doubling or tripling up situations with a family member or neighbor. In more extreme situations, they are living in “unfit for” or “unintended for people to live in” condemned houses or cars.

Schwartz said Holiday Central fits into their mission because it helps in removing barriers that homeless children face starting with basic necessities of food and clothing to gifts from a “wish list” so that children don’t feel left out of the holiday experience.

Since children are out of school for two weeks – where they may not have access to breakfast and lunch – food is a significant part of the sponsorship. Second Harvest Food Bank provides grocery bags of non-perishable items for each family  to fill the gap until school starts again, and their sponsor also provides a grocery gift card for a special holiday meal. 

From Dec. 14-19, a vacant warehouse on East Third Street, donated by Linden Thomas and Company, was transformed into Holiday Central where hundreds of sponsors dropped off donated gifts for 366 families of the agency’s client children.

When Schwartz first started with the agency seven years ago they served 75 families, but it has grown to 366 families, which equates to almost 1,400 children and parents. The number of families is up 17 percent this year.  Schwartz said this increase is partly due to the economy, but it can also be partly because they’re getting better at identifying them.

Desheicka, a client with four children, came in to pick up gifts. She said it means a lot to her children.
“I’m in a situation where I’m not able to get them some of the things they want,” she said. “It’s a blessing for Charlotte to have this type of program for the kids.”

A Child’s Place is in the second year of a three-year strategic plan to reach every homeless child in Mecklenburg County. The Holiday Central program would easily cost $110,000 using a conservative estimate, but it costs A Child’s Place nothing due to the support of sponsors who donate bicycles, dolls, clothes, and books.

“While it is so gratifying that people are very generous and go to a lot of effort to help our families this time of year January can be tough because the children are still homeless, but we don’t have the same visibility,” Schwartz said. “We don’t receive the same amount of support so if folks are able to keep us in mind at other times of the year it would be fabulous. We’d really appreciate it, and the children would really appreciate it.”

The Charlotte Post

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