Families, businesses and organizations will need to adapt this Christmas, putting aside long-held traditions, festivities and gatherings.
Local nonprofits also need to adjust, not allowing COVID-19 to eradicate what makes the season so special. And the community can play a big part in helping them.
“I never turn down a good idea,” said Gloria Vazquez-Merrick, executive director of the Latino Hispanic American Community Center (LHACC) in Allison Hill.
LHACC has loose plans for holidays, recognizing that things may have to change on a dime.
”We have to think outside the box, and that’s what we’re doing this year,” Vazquez-Merrick said.
Canceling the usual large party with Santa and a meal, LHACC wants to provide filled stockings to children and snack items to the seniors who visit the center. To that end, it’s asking for donations of snack items like fruit, beef jerky and Goya Maria cookies, a favorite of the older generation, Vazquez-Merrick said.
Also switching gears this Christmas is Brethren Housing Association (BHA) on Harrisburg’s Hummel Street. The women and children housed through BHA would usually share a meal with staff and their families and “shop” for Christmas gifts for their children via a shop set up with donated gifts.
“We won’t all be in a big room picking out presents,” said program director Marilyn Bellesfield.
Instead, people are signing up to purchase gifts that will be given to the families, and families will be provided food to create their own Christmas meal.
Donations of Christmas trees and trimmings were added this year as a morale boost for families who were already struggling, experiencing higher anxiety and depression caused by the pandemic.
“Almost every family lost their job, lost their childcare,” said Bellesfield.
People can help by providing cleaning supplies and gift cards or by sponsoring a night’s stay at BHA, budgeting classes or supplies for a youth program. Not very Christmas-y? Maybe, but cleaning supplies use up the little disposable income that many families have, and gift cards provide clothing for a newly housed family that has arrived with nothing.
More traditionally, creating music is one way that people brighten Christmas for the guests at Paxton Street Home, part of Paxton Ministries. It houses adults of all ages with serious financial limitations, as well as long-term mental health or intellectual challenges. Music groups or choirs can perform in the outdoor courtyard, where residents can view the performance from inside.
“I think the acoustics would be outstanding for a brass band to play here,” said Jodie Smiley, executive director.
Usually, the house would have lots of volunteers during December, holding parties, special events and musical performances. COVID has changed all of that. It’s also grounded the home’s hand bell choir, which typically traveled for a few holiday performances. The group will still perform, however. A recorded performance will be available on YouTube.
Because Paxton Home is a licensed personal care facility, it’s required to restrict the comings and goings of its residents, as well as visitors because of COVID. A simple way to support them is through sending Christmas cards
“Everybody likes to get Christmas cards,” Smiley said. “People attach them to the door of their room.”
Looking forward to life after COVID, Smiley said that she would like to be able to provide outings, like to a Harrisburg Senators game or concerts for residents.
“It would be especially nice for people who have been as restricted as folks in facilities have been,” she said.
People can do this by designating their gifts to “resident’s needs” or “activities.”
Food is another need that many nonprofits have, especially Bethesda Mission. It provides food to about 500 people a day. They have pivoted on their large, indoor Christmas meal and will provide it as a take-away.
“So, that [food] is our greatest need for Christmas,” said Executive Director Scott Dunwoody.
He said that Bethesda Mission has many food drop-off locations.
“But also cash, which allows us to purchase perishable foods, while the other food we are receiving is dry goods,” he said.
Bethesda Mission also will reach out to families by distributing food and holding some programs at its community center on Herr Street. The large gym will allow for gathering with proper social distancing.
Christmas, a time focused on family, poses additional challenges for those experiencing homelessness and separation from relatives.
“It’s the worst time of year for them,” Dunwoody said. “They’re suffering greatly. We try to provide the resources to help them get through that.”
The organizations and people on the receiving end of giving appreciate it very much. Dunwoody said that people are deeply humbled when they receive help.
“They will make statements over and over again, ‘I don’t know why in the world I would be blessed this richly,” he said. “‘I’m getting food. I’m getting clothing. I’m getting professional health care.’”
The sentiment is similar at BHA, which always appreciates donations.
“You’ve eased a burden in some capacity for a mom and child whose load is pretty heavy,” said Kait Gillis-Hanna, BHA’s executive director.
Indeed, many nonprofits need financial support right now. At this time of the year, they often receive donations from special seasonal church collections, but churches themselves are not meeting in person or attendance is down. Grant money also has been reduced.
“We need financial support even in the good times, but, especially now, that financial support is important,” Smiley said.
If nonprofits are any indication, COVID hasn’t killed the Christmas spirit. It has unearthed the knowledge of what matters most in life— friends, family, security, love—and the desire to help those doing without.
For more information and to contribute to the organizations in this story, visit:
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