MARBLEHEAD – Massachusetts Department of Children and Families’ social worker Carla King described what it was like when a fellow social worker peeked into the cupboards of a family in need this holiday season.
“There was absolutely nothing in the cabinets, nothing in the refrigerator, that’s one of the families that we are serving this year,” said King, a coordinator in DCF’s Salem office.
King spoke to Temple Emanu-El’s Sisterhood and the temple’s Families with Children Neighborhood group during a virtual brunch on Nov. 21, describing what the temple’s Giving Menorah project is all about.
For the fifth consecutive year, King is working with the temple to find sponsors for holiday gifts for 80 children ages 11 to 19. The family she described illustrates the need that is out there this time of year.
“A lot of times these families just are having a short-term hard time and we are helping them get through that hard time,” King said.
The temple’s Giving Menorah came about five years ago when Erin Cullen, co-chair of the temple’s Families with Children Neighborhood social group, came up with the idea of helping needy foster children during the holidays.
Growing up, Cullen said her mother would involve her in Secret Santa programs to buy gifts for families in need.
“I just kind of thought to myself that it would be really cool if we could do something like that for Hanukkah through our temple,” said Cullen, who is co-chair of the group with Sarah Waelchli and Gwen McCoy.
Cullen brought the idea to Shelby Chapper-Pierce, the temple’s engagement and program coordinator, who searched online and came across the Wonderfund, a private nonprofit that aids children engaged with DCF, including providing gifts for kids around the holidays.
Through the Wonderfund, Chapper-Pierce was put in touch with Carla King, who has been with DCF for 25 years. Cullen said they piloted the temple program with 50 names in the first year.
Cullen credits Chapper-Pierce and King with doing much of the work for the program.
“I feel so blessed that we have such a beautiful community that has really, you know, been so gracious and taken these names and we are in our fifth year and we have 80 names,” Cullen said.
The program involves temple members or those in the wider community picking the name of a child from an online list, then purchasing items from that child’s wish list. Sponsors may purchase one item or all of them, or other things that may not be on the list, King said.
As a precaution during the pandemic last year, the temple ran the program remotely, providing gifts to 70 children. The temple had the gifts sent directly to King’s home in Danvers instead of having them dropped at the temple’s office, which was closed to the public as a safety precaution.
King said she appreciated how much work the temple does to sort the gifts as they come in.
“Last year everything came to my house and it was a lot of work,” King said. “Like, all the Amazon packages came here and I was opening 10 Amazon packages a day and I had to sort the gifts,” said King, who was happy to do the work nonetheless.
This year, participants can drop off unwrapped presents at the temple office at 393 Atlantic Ave. in Marblehead, or they can be shipped directly there, labeled with the child’s name, age, and lettered code.
The deadline to sign up is Wednesday, Dec. 8.
So, who receives the gifts from the Giving Menorah? King said while DCF does help foster families through a holiday party, a shopping night with Toys for Tots, and with other donations, the Giving Menorah project helps children living with intact families in DCF’s care.
“The gifts that you guys provide for us help children in families, what I call ‘needy families,’” King said.
King also praised the temple for taking on older teens who are harder to shop for than little kids.
“We very much appreciate your group taking them because a lot of donors want to take the cute little kid gifts, the 2-year-olds, the 5-year-olds and 6-year-olds that want dolls and things like that,” King said. The over-18 young adults who have aged out of the system but who voluntarily stay in foster care, who either continue to live with their foster families or who are heading out on their own, often need the basics, she said, including many household items.
The way the program will work this year is the gifts will be sorted by the children’s name and code at the temple. Social workers then deliver the gifts in trash bags so the kids can’t see what’s in them. The families hide the gifts until Christmas.
“The parents are to put these under the tree from Santa, so you are Santa for all of our kids,” King said.
King said the goal is to make sure every kid has something under the tree, whether it be toys, clothing, or gift cards, which is something older kids want.
“We appreciate any gifts that come in,” King said.
To sponsor a child, go to emanu-el.org/giving-menorah-sign-up.