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Angel Tree program at Savannah YMCA provides comfort and cheer to those in need

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What does your Christmas wish list look like?

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If you are like most people you want electronics like smart phones, tablets, new televisions, blue ray disk players or i pods or maybe some leather boots, a warm winter jacket, music or videos, jewelry and perfume or cologne.

Some of us want more practical things like a new oven or a new set of tires for the truck or car. We'd be happy with just the necessities like a new coat, a new pair of shoes, or a few new pants and dresses - nothing fancy, but what if you lived in a family where you knew you were probably going to get nothing, not even a holiday meal?

There are a lot of individuals and families in the Savannah area who are desperately seeking a kind soul who would be willing to provide them something, if not for themselves, for their children, who still believe in Santa Claus, but will probably get nothing this year, prompting parents to explain that Santa is not real and that he will not be visiting with gifts this year because mom and dad are struggling just to pay the bills.

For over 15 years, the YMCA on Habersham street has been helping to provide gifts for needy children, just recently adding shut-ins and elderly to their Angel Tree Christmas giving program.

The Habersham YMCA partners with the Rotary Club of Savannah to sponsor the event, but YMCA members and guests actually select the angels from the tree and purchase gifts valued at $20 or less, though some donate a bit more or provide gently used items their kids or themselves have outgrown, especially movies, videos, games and toys that might be a bit too expensive to purchase on a $20 budget.

While many of the children and elderly on the tree are sponsored by outside agencies, the YMCA welcomes community members who have need to apply for financial assistance and processes over 100 applications, very few of whom are turned away.

Lori Langston, membership director at the Habersham Y states that this year they will provide for 420 or more seniors and children. Langston said the best part about the event was knowing that a child would receive something they want for Christmas.

It takes a number of volunteers to help wrap and distribute the presents, so those who would like to help, but cannot afford to buy presents, can still participate.

Langston says she will miss the party that they held for the children and watching them receive their gifts. This year they are trying something different and are asking for the family to pick up the presents so that the child will be allowed to feel the same magic of other children, thinking the gift has been provided by mom and dad or better yet, Santa!

In past years, area YMCAs provided over two million dollars a year in aid to needy families, with reduced memberships, child care, Christmas presents and holiday aid.

The Habersham YMCA recently provided all the fixings for Thanksgiving to over a dozen families who might not have been able to afford a special Thanksgiving meal otherwise.

The joy and humbleness expressed by the recipients of these meals and gifts is amazing and the people providing for the meals and gifts feel very honored to be able to do something simple to make someone's life a little less stressful.

Jennifer Haddad, Welcome Center lead, works tirelessly (okay, she's tired, but she still works willingly) getting the scholarships approved, cutting out angels and writing the desired presents and the ages of the recipients. Her whole family helps with the angels and this year, even a local girl scout group helped cut out and decorate the angels.

While gifts are to be under $20, many of the children ask for more expensive presents and sometimes get them, but Haddad says she encourages them to write down multiple gifts so that they can be assured of receiving something they really want.

Haddad said that they used to do just children, but when they discovered that many elderly were in need of just the basics, like warm blankets, slippers, t-shirts, gloves, tissues, lotions, even tooth brushes, wash clothes and towel sets, she embraced the idea of adding them as well.

One gentleman in his 80s requested a CD player, bathrobe and puzzle books, while an elderly woman asked for a warm blanket, slipper socks with grips, toilet paper and soap.

It really tugs at your heart to see the very basic needs of adults compared to some of the, perhaps, decadent desires of the children wanting mostly toys and electronic devices and to each person searching the trees for the perfect recipient, there is that one that reaches out and grabs you before you can grab it, like nine year old Gracie who wants funky socks, arts and crafts and pajama bottoms and art supplies or the one year old whose mother requests a diaper bag, children's books and clothes.

When you see people asking for the basic needs of life, it makes you more aware of how blessed you are to ask for and receive more valuable gifts that you don't really need, just want.

Jessica Bushkar, who has worked directing child watch and after school care for children at the YMCA for years says, "It is nice knowing that on Christmas morning, those kids will have something to open, even from Santa."

Langston added, "It keeps the magic of Christmas alive."

Haddad urges locals to come by and pick an Angel off the tree. Gifts are due back before December 19th, preferably by the 11th, so they will be able to make sure everyone who wants a gift receives a gift.

While they are able to go to Toys for Tots and pick out gifts for those who were not chosen off the tree, they would prefer individuals provide for them, thereby allowing these agencies to do greater good in the community.

She also encourages anyone to drop off new unwrapped goods at the Habersham Y.

Things like new toys, sporting goods equipment, warm pajamas, throws, lotions, body wash, puzzle books, leggo sets, toy trucks and fashionable dolls are always popular as are personal music players, learning electronics for young children and arts and crafts sets for young teens.

Some limited used items in very good condition are welcome as well like the bicycles someone donated last year. Call 354-6223 to request more information on how to give or donate your time.

Haddad says this year the need seems greater than ever before with well over 100 and possibly 150 more requesting gifts than they had last year.

"The greatest need is really right across the board," said Haddad.

It seems like hard economic times have hit all ages this year, even some families who were quite well off a few years ago, making everyone who gives a gift ever conscious that this could be them but by the grace of God.

Haddad says that many people do not think about seniors at Christmas, but that they enjoy receiving gifts as well and encourages others to reach out to anyone in need and offer assistance if they are able to provide it.

Twenty dollars is a meal out for two at a buffet style or fast food restaurant for most people or a few days worth of specialty coffee. Why not challenge yourself, friends and coworkers to give up something for a week and reinvest that money to help someone in greater need?

If you cannot afford to purchase a twenty dollar gift, you can go in with a friend and each purchase a ten dollar gift.

In truth the angel is not the one hanging on the tree, it is the one picking the angel off the tree and providing a little bit of joy in the life of a child or senior who might have nothing or no one with whom to share the holidays.

If you cannot come by the Habersham YMCA to pick out an angel, why not inquire at your church or business and see if you can find someone to help with a meal, a gift or even an invitation to join you for a special dinner or even bake them a plate of cookies.

Doing something nice to help someone also teaches your children about the true meaning of Christmas, which is to do something good to help someone else and show them how much they are loved and appreciated, so everyone learns that it really is better to give than receive and that by spreading the love to someone you don't even know, you bring everyone around you closer together as family and friends.

So, give that budding scientist an exploratory kit, that possible architect or engineer a model or puzzle, that chef a cookbook and a baking set, the musician a guitar or flute. Help take the winter chill away with a new coat or sturdy pair of shoes and warm socks and be an angel to someone in need.

If you would like to provide a gift, you can come by the Habersham YMCA at 6400 Habersham Street in Savannah, Georgia and sign out an angel.

There are still over 100 angels waiting to be chosen as the article goes to press and they can always use volunteers to help deliver presents and food baskets, help wrap and package items and even cut out angels for next year's event!

There is always something good you can do at your local YMCA, so get involved in your community and give back to those in need so that they can enjoy the same little joys the rest of us enjoy not only at Christmas, but throughout the year!

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