Ensuring that every child has a gift to open during the holiday season, Watauga County Schools is in the midst of its holiday adoption program.

Denise Presnell, a social worker at Hardin Park, said the school system has students who are in need throughout the year — as the county has an estimated 31 percent poverty rate. This need becomes more evident during the holiday season if a family isn’t able to provide any gifts for their children.

School officials — along with help from the faith community and area organizations — pair community members with students in need. These community buyers are asked to purchase gifts for the students to assist families who aren’t able to do so.

“We don’t want to see anybody during the holidays with nothing, no gifts of any kind,” Presnell said. “We want (students) to know that they’re remembered and cared about over the holiday, and that they matter and they’re important in our community.”

Approximately 700 to 800 children in the county participate in the holiday adoption program, Presnell said. To protect children’s privacy, donors are given a code number instead of a child’s name to keep it anonymous. The form the donor receives will have the child’s age, gender, needs, clothing sizes and fun items the child enjoys — such as interests, hobbies or activities.

A donor may be able to provide for a 5-year-old girl who wants a princess doll and a dress or maybe a 13-year-old boy who wants a black coat and a remote controlled car, Presnell explained.

Presnell said holiday adoption donors are asked to stick to a $100 spending limit to make sure there’s consistency among the amount of gifts each child receives year to year.

School counselors and social workers coordinate the holiday adoption program by sending out forms to families starting in October. The forms ask parents if they want or need assistance for the holidays.

While parents are asked to return the forms in one to two weeks to the schools, Presnell said forms still flow in three to four weeks later. Counselors and social workers then spend three to four weeks matching students with community members. Presnell said the hope is to give donors a sheet with the students’ information before Thanksgiving, as many people like to do the adoption shopping during Black Friday.

The faith community is a large piece of those who sign up for the program, Presnell said. Area agencies, businesses, organizations, teachers or individuals sign up as well. The program mostly gathers its donor participants through word of mouth, Presnell said.

Churches and organizations are able to adopt multiple children at a time. Presnell said one church may adopt five children while another adopts 30. Schools also try to coordinate between the elementary schools and the high school if an organization wants to provide for a family with children in multiple schools.

Bob Smith, the angel tree coordinator for First Presbyterian Church, said his church has been working with school social workers for many years — with the church adopting 65 children from six different county schools in the last several years.

“Our congregation has looked forward to our annual angel tree program with great anticipation, as their families have grown up shopping for one or more children every year,” Smith said.

Smith said First Presbyterian also uses its deacon’s fund to provide grocery store gift cards for each family. The church does this because “we want all of the families to spend the holidays together around a festive meal,” Smith added.

Each school may coordinate the gift giving process differently, Presnell said. Typically the schools will ask donors to have gifts to counselors or social workers by a certain date. Presnell said some churches may want to hand out at a party; if so, school officials will ask parents for permission to release the children’s names with the church. First Presbyterian delivers the gifts and cards to each school on its church bus, Smith said. He mentioned that participants enjoy playing Santa in their own pretend sleigh.

“We are each blessed by the excitement at each of the schools as we bring the bags of gifts into their hallways,” Smith said.

Presnell said there are two organizations with Appalachian State University that invite roughly 15 students or so to go on a shopping field trip to pick out gifts. When deciding which students may get to go on these shopping excursions, Presnell said Hardin Park staff think about a student’s age, pattern of behavior and level of need.

This year at Hardin Park, donors are asked to have their gifts delivered to the school by Dec. 8, with families picking up gifts on a subsequent weekend.

Donors are asked to have gifts in early just in case a donation falls through, Presnell said. This gives school officials time to line up another donor or find a way to “make it happen,” Presnell said.

It’s typical at Hardin Park for each child to not be covered by a donor. For example, as of Nov. 27 Presnell said the school had five children left that needed a holiday adoption. However, she said people donate to the school throughout the year for an emergency fund. When all is said and done and donor options have been exhausted, Presnell said the school might use emergency funds to buy gifts for two or three students.

Miraculously, though, Presnell said each year WCS finds a way to make sure each child is covered for the holiday.

“You’ll always have exactly what you need,” Presnell said. “It’s kind of like a Christmas miracle.”

All of this is done in coordination with other agencies such as the Watauga Department of Social Services or the Hospitality House. Presnell said multiple agencies keep in touch during the holiday season to ensure all children are able to open a gift for the holiday.

“We appreciate the community stepping in to make sure our kids are taken care of,” Presnell said. “It’s the highlight of some of our years; it’s one of the times we get to do something that’s strictly positive ... that gets us through the rest of the year because it’s such a positive experience.”

Donors are asked to not wrap the gifts. This is to give parents an opportunity to see what gifts they still may want to purchase or give families the joy of wrapping presents for their own children, Presnell said. Whether a parent or guardian chooses to tell a student where the gift came from isn’t what matters to school officials.

“Whether they tell them it’s from themselves or somebody else, that doesn’t matter to us,” Presnell said. “We’ll just know that a kid over the holidays won’t feel like they’re forgotten or don’t matter.”

Presnell said she believes the schools will have donors for most children in the district this year. If people would like to be considered as a donor for last minute needs this year or for next years program, folks are urged to contact school counselors or social workers. For more information, contact Presnell at presnelld@wataugaschools.org.

Presnell also suggested giving to similar programs through Santa’s Toy Box, the Hunger and Health Coalition’s sharing tree or angel tree programs at local churches.

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