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Hall has a heart for those in need
By Ashley Cox and Jessica Jordan
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During the holiday season, families trim Christmas trees, go shopping for gifts and plan dinner parties.

But many other families spend their holidays worrying about debt, struggling to put food on the table and wondering how they will provide a Christmas for their children.

Fortunately, there are several organizations in Hall County dedicated to making sure families and children have what they need not only during the holidays, but all year long. And some of them still need your help in providing for those families.

One well-known ministry is the Chattahoochee Baptist Association’s Secret Santa program, in which toys and clothes are collected to be distributed to underprivileged children. Parents fill out a registration form with their child’s information and are eligible if their family meets income and residency requirements.

Area churches, schools, businesses and individuals "adopt" families and donate according to listed needs. Last year, more than 1,300 children received Secret Santa gifts. This year about 500 families — that accounts for some 1,100 to 1,200 children — have signed up for the program, director Mike Walston said.

"We just get inundated with the need for help," he said. "And that’s why we’re here."

The organization is still in the process of collecting toys in the $30 to $50 range for children ages 2 to 13, as well as monetary donations.

"We have a lot, but we don’t have near enough," said Joyce Patrick, who has been in charge of Secret Santa program for the past 20 years.

A couple of groups, such as a local square dance club and a motorcycle club, contribute a large number of toys each year.

The Chattahoochee Baptist Association operates the Good Samaritan food ministry Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 9 to 11 a.m. and distributes food to about 300 people each week.

Individuals who quality for the ministry — which requires family income of less than $1,500 a month — receive a box of food that includes 18 cans of assorted fruits and vegetables, soups, peanut butter, rice, pasta, lunch meat and more.

One box contains about $90 worth of food and is given to each qualifying family every 90 days. Senior adults and shut-ins are eligible for a food box every 30 days.

Another local group taking up toys for children is the Gainesville Jaycees. For the past 28 years, the Empty Stocking Fund has provided local children with Christmas presents, progressing from a couple of kids, to 100 and this year to 450. The Jaycees, working with a partner agency, purchase items primarily for boys and girls ages 7 to 11.

"It’s a surprise for them," said Justin Green, director of the Empty Stocking Fund. "Since that age group is in school, we drop the gifts off with the administrators."

Today, they will distribute the clothes and toys to several schools in Hall County.

Perhaps one of the best-known charities which gives children toys for Christmas is the Marine Corps’ Toys for Tots program.

As the United Way of Hall County coordinator for Toys for Tots, Dawn Koponen has organized the toy drive for the past five years, and said the program’s donations this year are behind what they were at this time last year.

"I think the whole economy in general makes it difficult for people to give," Koponen said, adding that high gas prices may leave many who typically donate with a little less extra money.

The Toys for Tots program will accept toys for boys and girls ranging in age from birth to 15 years old for a few more days at the United Way of Hall County office on Oak Street. Monetary donations can also be given to benefit disadvantaged Hall County children. Koponen said the monetary gifts are tax deductible, and will allow organizers to shop for age-appropriate toys needed for specific families.

Koponen said the program plans to serve 427 families with approximately 1,200 children living in Hall County this Christmas.

The Hall County Foster Parent Association also is seeking help in providing Christmas for area children. Pat Brown is on the board of directors and said the group has been trying to raise enough funds to purchase $150 in gifts for each of Hall County’s 115 foster children, 60 percent of which are teens. But so far, the foster parent support group has only $3,000 in their coffer, and are almost $15,000 under their goal for the "Light up the Life of a Foster Child" campaign.

"Right now, we’re struggling. We’ve really felt it this year," Brown said.

Like Koponen, she cites soaring gas prices and the drought-stricken economy as possible causes for the decrease in donations.

"These are our local Hall County kids," Brown said. "They sometimes fall through the cracks of the system and don’t get a lot of support. And there’s just a need there to let them know that we love them and care for them, and they’re important to us."

While some organizations focus on providing gifts for children, others provide food for the entire family.

In addition to providing lunch and a gospel message for about 150 people daily, Good News at Noon provides a large meal every Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.

The Salvation Army also offers several programs to help local families in need.

The well-known red kettles and bell ringers can be seen all over town this time of year. During the holidays, the result from the nickels, dimes and dollar bills put into the kettle provides needy families with Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, gifts and clothing for children, and visits to the elderly and imprisoned who have no one to care for them.

The Salvation Army also is responsible for the Angel Giving Trees spotted in malls across the country. The trees are adorned with little angel tags, each containing the Christmas wishes of a child whose family is being served by the organization. People can "adopt" an angel and provide them with Christmas.

According to the organization’s Web site, the Salvation Army is seeing large increases in the number of Americans seeking the basic necessities of life — food, shelter and warmth. More than 33 million people received help from the Salvation Army in 2004.

Capt. Chad Williams with the Salvation Army in Gainesville said about 600 families have applied for help this year.

"Those applications are for folks and families who need help with Christmas, toys and food," he said.

Though the organization is no longer accepting applications, "We are trying to refer them to other agencies," Williams said.

And there are plenty of them.

Some of the other organizations providing help to those in need include Gainesville Action Ministries, which provides shelter, resources and basic needs assistance to homeless and needy people in northeast Georgia.

The Gainesville Baptist Rescue Mission, sponsored by Oakwood Baptist Church, serves as an outreach to homeless men in and around Gainesville.

Each month, the mission provides 600 meals to homeless men as well as personal hygiene necessities, clothes, shoes and socks.

For a complete list of nonprofit organizations in Hall County and for more information on how to help, visit and click on the "help list" link.

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