ALPENA - Last Christmas, charities in Northeast Michigan served more than 1,100 families with the help of a central database. This holiday season, the need could be even greater.
Alpena Community College's Volunteer Center and numerous churches, civic groups and nonprofits can reach the most families by using the Christmas Assistance Clearinghouse, Volunteer Center Director Kathleen Bruski said. These groups collaborate by combining the names of families being served by these organizations, including the Volunteer Center's own Christmas Wishlist, to create a confidential list to ensure families aren't double-booked.
"The reason we do it is so we can share more equitably with more people," she said.
As more families need help for the holidays, resources for them are shrinking or being stretched thin, Bruski said. If a family gets toys from two or more organizations, there's less to go around for other families in need. Donors want to be sure their gifts and money are being used as effectively as possible, and the organizations don't want to leave less-fortunate families empty-handed.
The list is used by numerous organizations, the biggest being the Salvation Army, Vietnam Veterans of America's Operation Holiday and the Volunteer Center, Bruski said. The United States Marine Corps Reserves' Toys for Tots collects in the area, and distributes the gifts through Vietnam Veterans of America. She encourages other charities to use the list, as it's helped those who do serve their families better.
"Our population's not growing, it's not even that we're providing to more people, necessarily," she said. "We're just doing a better job of it."
Families who show up on multiple lists aren't just removed, Salvation Army Maj. Joan Stoker said. She puts considerable time and effort into compiling the list each year, and said families who are signed up with two or more organizations frequently don't know it. They're given the option of choosing which organization will provide their holiday assistance: one charity might bring the family toys, another food and a third clothing. There are a few who do try to sign up with multiple organizations, though.
"Sometimes today, there are people who take advantage of any free thing," she said. "We need to make sure people in the most need are taken care of."
This year, Stoker and the Salvation Army are getting help from the Department of Human Services' Carrie Badgero, Stoker said. Badgero has agreed to set up a similar list for Alcona and Montmorency counties.
Each nonprofit has its own process for signing up families, and each has its own niche to serve, Bruski said. Families and individuals cannot sign themselves up for the Christmas Wishlist. Instead, school success workers, social workers and other professionals submit families they believe to be in a tough financial situation. The center then contacts the family and makes the proper arrangements. While other organizations provide toys and food, the Volunteer Center focuses primarily on providing clothing.
Families can sign up with Salvation Army, but must meet certain requirements, Stoker said. To qualify, they must fall below a certain income threshold or be in the midst of a financial emergency, among other stipulations.
Wayne Trapp, president of the local Vietnam Veterans of America chapter, heads Operation Holiday along with Mike Jackson. The operation's two programs, Feed a Family and Toys for Kids, coordinate with the clearinghouse. The veterans group gets family names from some of the same type of organizations that submit them to the Volunteer Center. Families also can be submitted by friends or neighbors, who might unwittingly send in a family who has already signed up with another charity. Others may try to take advantage of area charities.
"In the past it would be three or four organizations going to the same place," he said. "That's what we're trying to do away with."
For charities interested in using the clearinghouse, Bruski suggested they call the Volunteer Center at 358-7271 or emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stoker can be reached at 358-2769 or by email: Joan-Stoker@usc.salvationarmy.org.