“In Johnson City, Santa Claus and his helpers come in all shapes and sizes and from a variety of different backgrounds.”
So said Chelsea Boone-Belcher, assistant coordinator of the Johnson City Schools Homeless Education Program, who joyfully witnesses many gifts given to her students by the community each Christmas.
“Each year, the community comes together to help provide warm and joyful Christmas memories for our homeless families,” she said. “During times of uncertainty and hardships with the economy, homeless children enrolled in our schools have risen to an all-time high ... but our community outreach is as strong as ever.”
Last school year, the number of homeless children who attended Johnson City schools rose to all-time high of 729, up from 505 served by the Homeless Education Program the previous school year.
At Thanksgiving, only four months into the 2012-13 school year, the program had served 486 students, and appeared on its way to topping last year’s record.
Because homeless families move frequently, the number of homeless students served by the program changes rapidly as children change school districts. As homeless students leave the school system, more arrive and the total number served continues to grow.
When school recessed for Christmas on Friday, the program was serving 250 students. All but 56 of them had received gifts of clothing, toys and food from the many “Santas” who live and work throughout the community. And the Homeless Education Program rounded up gifts for the rest.
“For a homeless family, it’s hard to be filled with glee when the holidays are just another reminder of their everyday hardships,” Boone-Belcher said. “Picture a Christmas where you aren’t sure how you are going to feed and clothe your family. Imagine a child whose Christmas list for Santa contains food, a coat and a warm blanket, without even the mention of toys.
“No matter their circumstances,“ she said, “every child deserves to have the opportunity to wake up on Christmas morning and forget their troubles as they tear into the bows and wrapping paper.” She’s thankful for the many jolly old elves who make that possible for the homeless children in Johnson City’s schools.
First there are the teachers, students and staff members who spend each holiday season collecting food, clothing and monetary donations for gifts for homeless children and families at their schools.
Then, beginning each October, there are the many local businesses and nonprofit organizations whose calls and emails pour in with requests to sponsor a homeless family or donate items for students in the homeless program.
“Santa is the businesses that sponsor multiple children and families each year such as Chiltern, BCTI and Peeks Chiropractic,” Boone-Belcher said.
“Santa can be found at the Johnson City Masonic Lodge, where the Freemasons hold a coat drive and their youth organization, the Rainbow for Girls, sponsor a family each year.
“Santa collects blankets from the employees and patients at Jones Chiropractic.
“Santa’s helpers at Second Harvest Food Bank rise to the occasion with food baskets for our families.
“Santa lives in the heart of ... Highlands Fellowship, and Munsey’s Open Door Sunday School Group.”
And then there are the members of Johnson City Kiwanis Club, who Boone-Belcher said “keep Santa in their hearts all year” and not only sponsor a homeless family at Christmas but provide birthday parties for homeless students year-round.ã€€
While those who donate their time and money, or purchase items for the program rarely see the results of their good deeds, “their gifts are more than wrapped boxes full of goodies,” Boone-Belcher said.
“For our homeless students, the gifts are a sign of hope and proof that someone, even a stranger, cares for them and that makes all the difference.”