Pensacola, Florida
Sunday November 23rd 2014

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Caring for Christmas

By Jennifer Leigh

For Cathy Harris, president and founder of Streets and Lanes Ministry, Christmas has always held a special place in her heart.

“My widowed mother did her best to raise three children with very little income,” she recalled. “Christmas was sometimes popcorn strung on the tree, hanging those well-worn ornaments and a few gifts under the tree. We received food baskets from a local church, but were delighted to have fresh fruit.”

It was those memories that provoked Harris to “not back away from need,” she said. Every week, Harris visits area homeless with a hot meal and a reading from her Bible. However, five years ago, upon seeing a holiday need, she began providing Christmas stockings to the homeless, and has been able to carry on this tradition thanks to donations from the community.

“It was a modest beginning, yet one that profoundly changed me,” she said. “Now it’s an annual event for several of our loyal partners. We’ve had businesses and churches take this on as their annual project. One dear woman has crocheted stocking hats for four to five years now. Another sweet friend makes it her mission to find Christmas items on sale throughout the year. It’s truly been a joy to see this evolve.”

Donating—whether it’s your time or money—is important and appreciated year-round. But for individuals and families served by non-profits and charities, the holidays are not just about giving a check, but giving hope.

“The holidays are often the most depressing time for those who are alone, disenfranchised or otherwise outside the ‘norm,’ ” said Harris. “It’s especially important to recognize the homeless during the holidays to let them know in a real and tangible way that they are not forgotten. They are loved and have meaning.”

The same goes for children. Gulf Coast Kid’s House celebrates the holidays each year with the children they serve at an annual party filled with toys, pancakes and Santa himself. Throughout the year, GCKH provides intervention, investigation and prosecution of child abuse cases in Escambia County. At the holiday party, however, it’s a time of cheer, even if only for a morning.

“The children that come to the GCKH party have experienced child abuse—egregious child abuse,” explained Executive Director Stacey Kostevicki. “This holiday party is an opportunity to re-establish some normalcy into their young lives. We spend so much time seeing the darkness of humanity. Seeing this brighter side is what keeps us all going.”

Harris shares that sentiment when she hands out stockings to the homeless each year.

“One of my deepest passions is giving out those stockings at Christmas,” she said. “I know first-hand how much they look forward to it and how positively it effects them. Last year, I remember after we had given out a large group of stockings, we pulled off to our next stop. I looked in the rearview mirror to see two men sitting on the ground, digging through their stockings to see what they had. I saw the child-like happiness and joy we had given.”

The GCKH annual holiday party is made possible through local individuals and families who contribute to the event. Donations help keep overhead low so that the organization can use more of the money raised to improve services for children and families.

“Seeing the community come together to support one another means the world to me,” Kostevicki said. “We would not be able to provide a holiday party of this magnitude without them.”

Through community support, approximately 200 children will receive a gift; their caregivers will receive gifts that they can give during their own family tradition.

“Most importantly, they get time together as a family,” Kostevicki added. “We love that we are able to provide a nice, warm family breakfast.”

When Harris makes her rounds to dole out the stockings, she is serving men, women, veterans, those with mental and physical disabilities and those who are simply down on their luck. Still, it takes more than one person to step up and care for those who need assistance.

“The generosity of the community is often the mainstay of many non-profit organizations,” Harris said. “We are almost entirely donation-driven for the charitable acts that we’re able to do.”

When it comes to giving back this holiday season, Harris suggests you look no further than the good work that’s being done around you. Supporting a local organization is supporting your local community.

“Love doesn’t have to come with a price tag,” she said. “It’s often a simple act of giving a stocking, blanket or clean white socks with a smile. I would encourage everyone in our community to consider giving locally this year. Together, we can make a difference.”
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How You Can Help
Giving during Christmas-time doesn’t have to stop at the change you toss into the Salvation Army buckets. Give back and have fun by purchasing a few extra items for those in need this year. Here’s a list of local organizations to get you started.

Waterfront Rescue Mission Christmas Shoebox Project
Every year, Waterfront Rescue Mission collects shoeboxes filled with necessities such as toiletries, underwear, notebooks and postage stamps to deliver to the men, women and children The Mission serves. Drop off your wrapped shoebox (please wrap the lid separately) at Waterfront Rescue Mission, 348 W. Herman St., anytime before Dec. 11. waterfrontmission.org

Gulf Coast Kid’s House Holiday Party
Each year GCKH hosts a Holiday Party for approximately 200 children, complete with breakfast, gifts and a chance to meet Santa himself. Presents are made possible by donations and contributions from community members and organizations. Make your contribution by donating a new, unwrapped toy to be gifted to children from infants to teenagers. GCKH encourages educational and healthy gifts like art supplies, science kits, jump ropes, baseball gloves and basketballs. Drop off your gift–or gifts–to Gulf Coast Kid’s House, located at 3401 N. 12th Ave., Monday-Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. All contributions are appreciated by Monday, Dec. 9 to make sure gifts are matched to child attendees. gulfcoastkidshouse.org

Breakfast with Santa
Team Make a Difference led by Pandora de Balthazar of Luxury European Linens, with the help of Junior League of Pensacola, will be creating holiday memories at Breakfast with Santa, the annual event for foster children 12 and under in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. Donations make the party possible. Toys for children ages 0-13 as well as gifts for foster parents are still in need. Donations can dropped off at Baptist Health Care Foundation, 1717 N. E. St., Pensacola Beach Community Church, 920 Panferio Dr. or mailed to Team Make a Difference, P.O. Box 789, Gulf Breeze, FL 32562, before Dec. 14.
For more information, call Pandora de Balthazar at 450-4634.

Fill up the food pantries
While Christmas only comes once a year, food is always in need for local organizations. Donate your nonperishable items to Manna Food Pantry or Food for Thought and fill up the bellies of those who need a little extra help. At Manna Food Pantry, donations such as canned meats and fish, vegetable and meat soups, canned fruit, pasta, peanut butter and individually packaged breakfast items are appreciated year round. mannafoodpantries.org; facebook.com/Foodforthoughtinc

Christmas Stockings for the Homeless
Streets and Lanes Ministry annually provides Christmas stockings to area homeless filled with necessities and goodies such as gloves, scarves, batteries, toiletries, small canned meats, hard candy, hand warmers, and over-the-counter glasses. Stockings must be filled by Dec. 17. Contact Streets and Lanes Ministry to arrange a pick-up or drop-off time by calling 324-1951. Now is also a great time to make your annual pledge by mailing P.O. Box 42, Cantonment, FL 32533 or visiting streetsandlanesministry.com.

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Giving Tuesday
There’s Black Friday (which has slowly crept its way into Thanksgiving evening), Cyber Monday and now, Giving Tuesday. Celebrate the nationwide movement by donating to your favorite organization as a way to remind yourself of the true meaning of holiday spirit. Get in on the conversation using #GivingTuesday and visit community.givingtuesday.org.