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Holidays humble generous local communities

By Katelyn Gendron

Reminder Assistant Editor

SOUTHWICK Thanksgiving is only one week away, which means that Black Friday is right around the corner ready to kick off the holiday shopping frenzy.

For those at the Greater Southwick Family Support Coalition, the holiday season is an enormous undertaking to collect presents for families in need through the Adopt-a-Family program.

Over 10 years ago this organization began what was then called the Giving Tree program, which collected holiday presents for about 20 parents.

"We started out with a group of caring people from towns, schools and agencies," Pennie Sibley, former coordinator of the Greater Southwick Family Support Coalition, said. "We thought everybody should have the right to shop at Christmas, whether they had money or not."

The Giving Tree program allowed parents in need to come to the coalition and "shop" the various tables of donated presents for their children.

"When people truly understand that their neighbors have needs they would fill them," Sibley said of the community's generosity. "It's just a bunch of wonderful people trying to do the right thing and it makes a pretty bright candle."

Today, what is now called the Adopt-a-Family program collects presents that cater to the specific needs of over 35 adopted families and receives donations from over 25 families and organizations.

Debbie Oppermann, executive director of the Greater Southwick Family Support Coalition, said that while the Giving Tree highlighted the extensive generosity of the community the coalition often had many duplicate and leftover presents each year. She added that the majority of the presents were for children and not teens.

However, the Adopt-a-Family program requires that adoptive families fill out an intake form with various questions about their household needs and the needs of their children. Oppermann said that this procedure allows the children to receive presents they are almost guaranteed to enjoy.

This program also allows those who want to adopt the choice of whole families or a certain number of children. The intake form targets the specific wants and needs of the adopted children from electronics to toys and clothes.

Oppermann said the coalition asks about the needs of the entire family as well because the program is also aimed at helping "the household as a whole."

Those families and organizations that adopt whole families have also donated wrapping paper, tags and money for additional gifts the coalition sees fit to buy, she added.

"We really want to capture the generosity [of the community] and use it in the most effective way," Oppermann said. "It's really fun on our end because when you come in and watch people come in and get the gifts they're shocked. The humanity comes out this time of year. People give from the heart."

The generosity of the community does not stop at the coalition as those at the Woodland Elementary School collect donations of new books for children and teens for the Adopt-a-Family program. The books serve as supplemental presents for parents to choose from when they pick up their gifts, Oppermann said.

Dianne Houle, president of the Woodland Parent Teacher Organization, said donating to the coalition is valuable for the families in need as well as the children giving because it teaches them the importance of "giving back." She added that each year the donations from the Woodland School are in the hundreds as many children choose to participate.

She said Southwick is based upon "sharing core values and giving what you can and not asking for anything in return." Houle added that she believes Southwick's value system is what makes the community's generosity so abundant and the Adopt-a-Family program such a success.

The deadline for families in Southwick, Granville and Tolland to be adopted is Nov. 20. The last day to adopt a family is Dec. 3.

For more information on adopting a family, registering to become an adopted family, or to donate to the coalition call the Greater Southwick Family Support Coalition at 569-3456.