Even with all the toy drives and charitable giving associated with the season, some families struggle to find help. Virginia Beach City Public Schools social workers identify students whose families are in need and are not being assisted through other avenues. They make sure the students and their siblings receive support through the Holiday Connection program, which links children with school and community sponsors.
“We’re about putting students first,” said Damion Wilson, coordinator of school social work services. “If you do that, you also have to make sure their families are taken care of. Having trust and making sure we’re fostering a healthy environment is important, particularly when you’re talking about issues like poverty.”
The Holiday Connection program delivered gifts, clothes, blankets, hygiene kits and gift cards directly to 350 students’ homes this month. The program has served as many as 515 students in the past; but due to the health pandemic, the numbers were lower this year
Younger learners who receive items through snowflake trees at elementary schools often have older siblings in middle and high school who could use a gift during the holidays, explained school social worker Lisa Lowman, who has been coordinating Holiday Connection for about 10 years.
“School social workers are on the pulse of who is in need in the schools,” Lowman said. Schools, administrative departments, businesses and other groups band together to support Holiday Connection.
“There’s a lot of community outpouring, which is awesome,” she added. “Without the social workers and without the community and the schools themselves, this wouldn’t happen. It’s definitely a group effort.”
It’s especially rewarding to help families who face new stresses and limitation due to the pandemic, explained Tonya Ingram, Project HOPE distributor with the office of student support services.
“This proves that when the community and individuals come together to make a little bit of change – the act of that change is so empowering to everyone involved,” she said.
Thanks to a $10,000 gift from the Hansen Family Foundation to the Virginia Beach Education Foundation, school social workers will be able to give grocery and department store gift cards to families as needs arise the next several months.
Those gift cards will come in extra handy when the weather changes and families discover children have grown out of their warm-season clothes, Lowman said.
Wilson praised Lowman for her dedication to Holiday Connection.
“She’s the piston that keeps the car moving,” he said. “She’s amazing.”
In previous years, parents responded to the home deliveries with hugs and tears. That wasn’t possible this year due to the pandemic, but Lowman and the other school social workers still received thank-you texts, emails and phone calls from family members.
“It does my heart good knowing every child we’ve helped will have something on Christmas morning,” she said.
For more information about being a sponsor for next year’s Holiday Connection program, email firstname.lastname@example.org.