On Wednesday, Dec. 14, the conference room at the Department of Human Services in Salem was packed full with bags of toys and clothing for disadvantaged children. Families receiving help are identified by assigned numbers, keeping their identities confidential. A big bag for family 23 contained gifts for six children.
A Salvation Army truck from Mountain Home arrived with a big load of food boxes, and it was suddenly "all hands on deck" as DHS workers helped carry in 160-food boxes.
"We are almost ready for tomorrow (Dec. 15) when parents will arrive to pick up the packages and boxes for their family. We should get everything distributed in about two hours," said Connie Buss, a 14-year DHS employee, who actually enjoys the yearly pressure to obtain enough donations to assist more than 200-children. "I love helping children," Buss explains.
The Angel Tree program begins in November, when low income families in need of Christmas help sign up for assistance.
By the time families are qualified, Angel Trees with paper angels appear around the community. Individuals, families and organizations choose angels and buy toys and clothing for them, following written suggestions as to their sizes and what they need or would like for Christmas.
DHS employees regularly collect donations left at tree sites and, somehow, children facing a bleak holiday always seem to get the help they need to have a nice Christmas.
"This year, has been our biggest "worry" year," DHS Director Dwight Sharp told The News. "More people needed help than usual, and fewer people were in a position to help, to make donations, because of the economy."
As collections began, 268 children had been approved as "angels," and another 30-children in the foster care system needed assistance.
"We usually are able to get help for all of the children on our Angel Tree but, this year, we had 10 or 12 (angel cards) left on the tree," said County Treasurer Donna Hall, who coordinates Angel Tree collections at the courthouse.
"We had the most angels left without gifts that I can recall," said Sharp. "But, thanks to monetary donations from individuals and groups, we were able to go out and buy presents for angels who weren't chosen."
Sharp said, because DHS employees take on the job of running the Angel Tree program, many people wrongly think state funds are used to help families who qualify for assistance.
"In truth, DHS gives its time only (employee time)," said Sharp. "We can only pass on what local people give us."
Just a day before gifts and food were distributed to families, help was still coming in. Jannette Cooper arrived with several big bags of gifts. "Each year myself, my sister and my mom choose five Angel Tree kids to buy for," Cooper explained.
Earlier in the day, FBLA, a student club at Salem High School, called offering last minute donations.
"Even in tough times like we're experiencing now, people always come through for the Angel Tree program," Sharp said, looking forward to the Dec. 15 distribution of gifts and food, where no qualifying family would be left out.
Sharp said it may be true that some families take advantage of the system but, in his experience, most families who seek Angel Tree help truly need it, because they've lost jobs, are working less hours or face other problems that have left no extra money to give their children a good Christmas.
Sharp remembers one year when an organization chose a number of angels to help, and bought two new bicycles it wanted to give to two deserving children. While Angel Tree donors normally do not know the identities of the children they assist, arrangements were made for the organization to deliver the bikes.
"One child never had much of anything for Christmas, and I was so happy that he got a nice bicycle," said Sharp.
Connie Buss knows that many children helped by Angel Tree are aware that they are receiving special help and appreciate it.
"I know one lady who comes in and looks for a family with three or four kids each year," Buss explained. "She makes a point to get involved because she remembers getting Christmas gifts each year through the Angel Tree program. She says, now that she is married and able to do so, she wants to give back to the program that helped her as a child."
In addition to helping children through Angel Tree, DHS will also give food boxes to 76 senior citizens. A small sack of Christmas treats, wash cloths, soap and a holiday cup full of candy, will come with the food. "Seniors are still kids at heart and love to get gifts at Christmas too," Buss said.
While the Angel Tree program is winding down, DHS employees can't settle down for a long winter's nap.
With Christmas fast approaching, most will now turn their attention to finishing up gift purchases for their own children and families.