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Everyday Santa Claus

The Commission on Economic Opportunity strives to bring Christmas to those in need with its Adopt-a-Family program

by Erin Pihlaja on November 29, 2012

“When you get that call saying your family has been adopted, it’s a huge sense of relief,” said Tawana Cook. Cook is a recipient of the Adopt-a-Family program facilitated by the Commission on Economic Opportunity (CEO), a nonprofit that was established in 1965 to improve the quality of life for community members, primarily in Rensselaer County.

Cook is the single mother of an 8-year-old boy and, although she has survived a series of misfortunes, including a house fire that destroyed all of her belongings, she tries to make ends meet. Cook works at Walmart, but has missed work recently due to medical issues, like arthritis. Like most parents, she worries about providing for her child, especially at Christmas. The Adopt-a-Family program provided Cook and her son with Christmas presents last year, and will do so this year as well. Cook was adopted again, but so far only 14 other families share the same fate.

Erin Bradley, of CEO, hopes for donors for Adopt-A-Family.

“We have 45, possibly 46 families on the list,” said Erin Bradley, community services director for CEO. “Forty-five is higher than previous years, I think it’s a reflection of our economy—many of the stories involve lost jobs, hours reduced, and [people] are struggling to find work.”

Bradley has been with CEO for 9 years, but the Adopt-a-Family program has been running for more than 30 years. It pairs families in need with anonymous donors who buy Christmas gifts for the family. The program has been successful in the past, but this year, donors are harder to come by. In 2011, Bradley said that the program helped 140 individuals, “all low-income Rensselaer county residents.”

The families that apply for aid vary. “This year there are single moms, two parents who were recently unemployed, a mom with terminal illness who can’t work, and a family who is homeless,” Bradley said. “There are so many, but they are all parents who are concerned that without our help they won’t be able to have a Christmas.”

To qualify, the families have to have worked with one of CEO’s programs in the past year, be low-income by the federal poverty guidelines (although special circumstances are considered), and participate in financial literacy and budgeting instruction through one of CEO’s programs.

Donating to Adopt-a-Family, or sponsoring a family, can take place in a few different ways. Monetary gifts in any amount are accepted, and other gifts can be dropped off at CEO’s offices (2328 5th Ave., Troy) at any time. Sponsors can ask to read stories about each family and can choose one personally. They can give their donation to CEO and the organization will do the shopping, or they can take the family’s wish list and purchase the gifts themselves.

“We enjoyed doing the shopping,” said Heather Foehser, who, along with her parents, brother, and sister-in-law; sponsored two families last year. “There is an overwhelming sense of joy knowing you are helping someone,” she added. Foehser learned about the program as a Head Start employee at CEO.

Four years ago, Foesher’s family decided not to exchange gifts among the adults and instead to pool their resources to help others. Foesher doesn’t consider her family to be affluent. “We just have everything we need. It’s just a joy of knowing someone out there who has nothing will have something for Christmas,” she said.

Donors remain anonymous, and the thank-you letters that the adopted families write are delivered through the agency. Bradley has received e-mails from families describing the impact the program has had on their lives. “Some say that Christmas wouldn’t have happened without us,” she said, “and that this inspired them to think that there are still good people out there. That their child was so excited and they still believe in the magic of Christmas.”

“I can’t thank them enough,” said Cook. “Someone is spending their hard-earned money on someone who doesn’t even know them—that’s a blessing to thank the good lord about.”

The average amount to sponsor a family is around $300, according to Bradley.

“However, for a single parent with one child it can be $150, or for a larger household it could be $500 or so,” she said. She hopes that more donors will sign up, and likes to have all families assigned by Dec. 14, so that they will know in advance whether or not to expect the aid.

“Adopt-a-Family really helps people who are struggling to help themselves,” Cook said. “I couldn’t do it on my own. Hopefully one day I’ll be in the position to do the same for someone else.”