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This initiative is granting Christmas wishes for children and teens in foster care
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Nancy Glenn, right, Nancy Powell, left, and Marci Kasmar decorate a Christmas tree Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022, at the Gainesville Civic Center donated by the law firm of Stow Garvin & Glenn to be given to a Hall County foster care family as part of the Home Is Hall project. A celebration for the youths and their caregivers is planned for Dec. 3 at the Civic Center. - photo by Scott Rogers

The Christmas wishes of more than 200 Hall County children and teenagers in foster care are coming true, thanks to a project aimed to ensure these youth have everything they need to feel right at home.

Since 2019, Hall is Home for Kids for the Holidays, an initiative of Refined By Fire Ministries Inc., has provided Christmas gifts to upwards of 2,000 children in the custody of Hall County Department of Family and Children Services, in relative care served by the department and Court Appointed Special Advocates and in the care of biological parents who have worked toward family preservation or reunification, according to project chairwoman and child welfare attorney Ari Mathe.

The organization, which also brokers support and resources to families connected to the child welfare system throughout the calendar year, starts planning the holiday project in February, collecting children’s wish lists and enlisting sponsors to secure those coveted items on their families’ or caretakers’ behalf.

Secured for a total of 239 youth this year ranging from infant to 21, those gifts are under the watchful eye of volunteer “elves” manning a converted workshop at the Gainesville Civic Center, where the gifts will be distributed during a private Christmas celebration Dec. 3 for the children and teens, their families and other adults who support them.

Rather than wrapping and handing them to the children themselves, project volunteers have grouped each child’s gifts in a large opaque bag for their caregivers to take home, affording them the autonomy to present them to their children “in the way that resonates with the traditions of their family,” Mathe said.

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CASA volunteer Katie Carswell moves a box of gifts Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022, at the Gainesville Civic Center that are donated to Hall County children and teens in foster care as part of the Hall Is Home project. A celebration for the youths and their caregivers is planned for Dec. 3 at the Civic Center. - photo by Scott Rogers

“We insist that we are not given credit — no donor is given credit for the gifts,” Mathe said. “That’s not how it works. Those gifts are given from the family to the children, because we know in some circumstances, that might be all or a large part of the gifts that the children receive. We don’t want to take away from the caregivers’ giving of those gifts.”

While the program is wish list-based for children 12 and younger, it functions a bit differently for teenagers. Respecting their desperation for autonomy, Mathe said the project provides specially curated boxes, similar to a subscription box, with niche age-appropriate items and a gift card for at least $100 from a major retailer like Walmart or Target, granting the teens the opportunity to choose what they want.

“One of our anchor points as an organization, a project, is that we want families receiving the gift to have autonomy,” Mathe said. “There’s so much that the children and families impacted by our system can’t control. It’s so important to create as much autonomy as possible.”

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CASA volunteer Katie Carswell prepares a donated box of gifts Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022, at the Gainesville Civic Center to Hall County children and teens in foster care as part of the Hall Is Home project. A celebration for the youths and their caregivers is planned for Dec. 3 at the Civic Center. - photo by Scott Rogers

While this year’s is the first celebration the organization has hosted since its inaugural event in 2019 owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, it hardly missed a beat in providing Christmas gifts, “which was miraculous with the state of the world as it was, with the state of folks’ budgets as they were,” Mathe said. 

“We were still able to make it happen because we live in a great community. ‘The good people of Gainesville and Hall County’ isn’t just something painted on a brick wall — it’s real.”

Financial sponsors are still needed for teen boxes, Mathe said, namely for postage for boxes curated for teens who live outside Hall County. 

Due to a shortage of caregivers, upwards of 60% of youth in foster care through Hall County Juvenile Court and DFCS are placed in homes outside of Hall, according to Mathe. Those addresses could be as close as Forsyth County or as far as Savannah or Macon.

Looking ahead to 2023 and other needs that may arise for the local foster care community — specifically children, families, caregivers, DFCS case managers and supervisors, attorneys, judges, CASA volunteers and support staff — Hall is Home is seeking not just monetary support, but donations of time and skill sets to address “various things that might come up that the system doesn’t have another resource for or that is not available to access as quickly,” Mathe said, such as cleaning services or light construction work to make a caretaker’s home suitable to welcome children.

“There are ways to plug in whatever people have to offer through the year so that we can be not just a financial sort of broker to put those resources where they need to go, but to be a services and people broker,” Mathe said. “We can all do something. You don’t have to write a big check — although we would love that. There is something that you can do to make a difference in the child welfare community. We would love, love, love to have more folks come to the table.”

To learn more about Hall is Home and opportunities to support the organization, visit hallishomeforkids.com.

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Gainesville attorney Donna Lockwood-Sims begins decorating a Christmas tree donated by her law firm Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022, at the Gainesville Civic Center as part of the Home Is Hall project. A celebration for children in foster care and their caregivers is planned for Dec. 3 at the Civic Center. - photo by Scott Rogers
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Elain Ellerbe takes phones calls Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022, inside the Gainesville Civic Center as donated Christmas presents are collected and sorted to be distributed to Hall County children and teens in foster care as part of the Hall Is Home project. A celebration for the youths and their caregivers is planned for Dec. 3 at the Civic Center. - photo by Scott Rogers