The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Santa won’t get letters this year
For 24 years, the Fredericksburg Chapter of the American Red Cross compiled the Christmas wish lists of needy children and paired them with generous donors.
For 24 years, wishes ranged from the mundane to the heartbreakingly impossible. Some children wanted a new pair of shoes. Some wanted their dying grandmother to live another year.
And just before volunteers started prepping for the 25th Letters to Santa campaign, officials quietly quashed that annual tradition.
“The Red Cross dropped a bomb on us,” said Hayley Badillo, who runs the holiday assistance program for the Fredericksburg Department of Social Services. Badillo’s program usually relies on Letters to Santa to fill the wishes of more than half of the children who come to the Department of Social Services.
Children in need still will get Christmas presents, said Sarah Walsh, director of community involvement for the Rappahannock United Way.
“It has long been a tradition of this community to open their hearts and wallets to help those in need during the holiday season,” Walsh said.
The Fredericksburg Corps of the Salvation Army will try to provide Christmas for the children who usually are helped through Letters to Santa and the ARC’s holiday program for people with intellectual disabilities. That could be as many as 1,000 more children.
But filling the gap left by Letters to Santa won’t be easy.
For starters, the Salvation Army is in transition itself—two new lieutenants started this summer, and the corps’ new social services director started this week.
“There are a lot of changes,” said Elizabeth Rogers, director of development for the local Salvation Army. “We definitely need the community to help us out even more.”
And the official demise of Letters to Santa came just two weeks ago—at the same time most expected the program to begin.
In September, the area coalition of holiday help programs met to strategize the Christmas assistance season, which typically begins in early October.
At that meeting, the new director of the local Red Cross dropped a potential bombshell, telling the other coalition members that the Letters to Santa program was uncertain for this year.
Shortly after that meeting, regular volunteers for the program started to wonder if their services would be needed. They couldn’t imagine losing the long-running program, which helped more than 600 children last year and 1,500 in its prime in the mid-1990s.
“We show up every year because we know the impact that this has on families in the Fredericksburg area,” volunteer Bob Saikowski said. “Letters to Santa just reflects the heart and soul of Fredericksburg.”
Little more than a week ago, the United Way confirmed there would be no letters this year. And Red Cross Director Helen Parham sent an email to donors, telling them to visit the agency’s blog for details about Letters to Santa.
That blog post referred to the program’s demise as a “strategic alliance” between the Red Cross and the Salvation Army.
But Salvation Army leaders were just then learning that they would be taking on the additional children, less than three weeks before registration for the holiday assistance program.
That gives the Salvation Army’s leaders little time to iron out the details involved in absorbing a holiday program with some fundamental differences.
For example, the Salvation Army’s Christmas clients register with that program each year. Letters to Santa would take on children from area departments of social services.
There were other, smaller differences—the Red Cross had donors come to them, while the Salvation Army has them drop off gifts at various locations; the Salvation Army helps more children but typically gives each fewer presents than the Red Cross.
And then there is the trademark feature of the Red Cross program: the letters. Those missives routinely tugged on heartstrings and brought in donors.
The Salvation Army instead has paper angels, with a brief wish list on the back. Rogers said they are hoping to get the trees decorated with angels at more businesses this year, to encourage more donations.
The speedy changes have left some Christmas elves with whiplash. Those who run holiday help programs through local departments of social services said they still don’t know how the changes will work.
And Saikowski said this will most likely be the first year in a decade that he won’t be assembling hundreds of bicycles.
“I hope it works out somehow,” he said. “I don’t want to go to bed Christmas Eve worrying about these kids.”
Amy Umble: 540/735-1973
HOW TO GET HELP
Registration for the Salvation Army’s holiday program will be Oct. 7–11 at Spotswood Baptist Church. Registration will be held Monday through Thursday, 8–11:45 a.m. and 1–3:45 p.m., and Friday, 8–11:45 a.m.
Applicants must bring in a current award letter for all assistance received (SNAP, TANF, Medicaid, SSI, SSDI, SSA and UIB) or three months’ worth of your most recent pay stubs. Also, each adult applicant must have photo identification. And applicants must bring a birth certificate for each child they are registering for help.
The program helps children ages 0–12, people with disabilities and some senior citizens.
For details, call 540/373-3431.
HOW TO HELP
The Salvation Army expects to help nearly 3,000 children this holiday season. To do so, leaders are asking for the community’s help. Here are some ways to get involved:
- The launch of the Red Kettle program, which provides money for the holiday assistance, will be held Nov. 15, 7–10 p.m., at Brock’s in Fredericksburg. Tickets are $20.
- Angel Trees will be in area businesses such as Walmart and the Spotsylvania Towne Centre starting Nov. 6; gifts will be due back on Dec. 5.
- A food drive to help families celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas will be held through Nov. 25. Drop off food donations at the Salvation Army office, 2010 Lafayette Blvd. in Fredericksburg.
- The agency also is collecting new clothes for children ages newborn to 12 for the holidays. Drop off new clothes at the office.
- The Angel Tree program needs volunteers. To help, email Lizette_Arce@uss. salvationarmy.org.
For more ways to help, call the Salvation Army at 540/373-3431.
OTHER WAYS TO HELP
You might be picking out Halloween costumes. But the people who work on area holiday help programs are already prepping for the holiday season—and they need your help. Here are some ways to get involved:
Local departments of social services seek sponsors for children in need. To help in Fredericksburg, call Hayley
Badillo, 540/372-1032, ext. 249; in Spotsylvania, call Lori Weresnick, 540/507-7896;
in Stafford, call Yolunda Willis, 540/658-8732.
SERVE, a Stafford-based nonprofit, is collecting unwrapped presents and gift cards for teens who don’t usually get presents from holiday assistance programs. For details, call 540/288-9603.
The Rappahannock United Way is compiling its usual holiday helping guide and hopes to have it up on the website in the next week or so. Visit rapphannockunitedway.org.