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12.12 Share the Holiday Spirit

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By Tine R. Roycroft

Each holiday season, seemingly earlier and earlier each year, we are bombarded by TV ads about discounts, special hours, limited-time offer inventory, and not-so-subtle suggestions that only way to show people that you love them is to buy them something…or many somethings.  “The season of giving” has turned into “The season of buying.” Caring has become synonymous with maxing out your credit card.

Let me rephrase that.  For a lot of folks, even in this unsteady economy, the holiday season is still about stuff…how much stuff, which designer made the stuff, is the stuff she got better than the stuff I got…

What if we replaced all the talk about “stuff” with words like “time,” “caring,” “shelter,” “joy,” “fun,” “warmth,” “safety,” and “laughter?”  What if we made an effort to turn the holidays ~ and the rest of the year ~ into a chance to do something amazing for the community, something that they’d never forget and that could change their lives (and likely yours) forever?

That’s just what organizations in Worcester are doing ~ staff and volunteers alike are reaching out to make sure that our neighbors ~ especially children and teens ~ are cared for, warm, and well-fed, have smiles on their faces when they’re going through tough times, have places to play where they can just be happy, and yes, even get what children of all ages dream of, that special holiday toy that is just for them.

So while you’re finishing up your holiday to-do list, consider adding “volunteer” somewhere at the top.

Why Me

When a child is diagnosed with cancer, a family’s world can be turned upside down. There are treatments to be scheduled, doctor appointments to be kept…and then there are the medical costs, which, on top of the usual cost of living, can be financially crippling. Luckily, families are not alone in their fight.

The Why Me organization provides a number of vital resources that can keep people afloat during this difficult time. From support groups to hospital visits to providing a place for the families to stay at Sherry’s House, Why Me goes above and beyond to make certain these young patients are provided for.

“The families face many financial burdens,” says Danielle Perron, Director of Family Services and Events Manager. “It’s almost inevitable that in a two parent home, one parent will leave their job to care for their child and take them to doctors’ appointments. They can take a huge hit financially. In a single parent home, you can only imagine the obstacles they face. Many of these families find that they’re unable to stay in their current living situations. So they can stay here, at Sherry’s House, completely free of charge while their child is receiving treatment.”

Why Me provides the day-to-day necessities for these families, plus special holiday meals and holiday gifts. But the organization also recognizes the importance of “just being a kid.”

“So much is taken from the kids when they’re going through treatments,” Perron says. “So we also focus a lot on family fun events, which allow kids to have some fun in their lives like sporting events, concerts, big BBQs and holiday parties.”

Perron remembers a very creative girl who was fighting cancer. She may have only been 12, but she had written a short story that was published and helped create a film based on the piece ~ both projects meant a great deal to her.

“She was very sick,” says Perron. “And we wanted to do something special for her. We actually threw her a world premiere movie party here at Sherry’s House. We had her picked up in a limo, people posed as photographers, we rolled out the red carpet and she walked in in her gown. All the people were cheering. We did a screening of the movie, she signed autographs and we gave her an ‘Oscar.’”

Why Me already does an incredible job of helping families, but there are many ways that people can support the organization and its mission.

“We have a wish list online,” Perron says. “We’re always looking for items that people use in their homes, like toiletries and paper goods. We need nonperishable food items, gift certificate for gas cards, and we always need volunteers to help out at Sherry’s House or at events. And during the holidays, we ask people to ‘adopt a child’ and they can purchase gifts on the child’s holiday wish list.”

So maybe as you’re sending out invites to holiday parties, think about asking guests to bring something to contribute to a big holiday basket that you can deliver to Sherry’s House. Or if you’re throwing a house party for your buds who are home from college, make it “mandatory” that they bring something on the wish list.

For more information and other ways to help, visit www.whyme.org.

 

Mahoney’s Pub Owner John Bartosiewicz Embodies the Spirit of Volunteering

John Bartosiewicz, owner of Mahoney’s Pub, has volunteered with Why Me for a number of years.  His gift of time has helped brighten the lives of children and families facing cancer, but the moments he has experienced at Sherry’s House feel more like gifts he is thankful to receive.

In John’s Own Words

“I’ve been a volunteer at Why Me’s housing facility, Sherry’s House ~ which is a healing home dedicated to children with cancer ~ for over two years now.

I started volunteering there because I always wanted to help children, especially those with cancer. Every child deserves to live a happy, peaceful life, but unfortunately life takes some turns at a young age. I wanted to help these children out in any way that I could; whether it was one hour a month, or one hour a day.

I started off by helping out at events such as their Halloween Party, Christmas Party and Poker Tournament, which were all great successes.

At each function, every volunteer has an assigned job and during the 2010 Christmas Party, my job was to go around with a video camera and record all the children and families during dinner, arts and crafts, games and opening presents when Santa came around. That was a very touching moment.  It didn’t matter if the children had recovered or were still sick.  They kept smiles on their faces the entire time and I was able to witness it and record for all to see.

We all have bad days at work and struggles at times in our lives, but there are children out there who encounter these struggles at an early age.

Since I have owned Mahoney’s Pub, I have stayed active at Sherry’s House by donating food for “Healing Dinners and Parent Meetings” which run as often as 3 times a month. I’m also a “Secret Santa” for every Christmas Party, with as many as 9 children this upcoming Christmas.

We as volunteers may not have the cure to cancer, but any smile that we can bring to the faces of the children and their families is something that we can treasure forever knowing that we have impacted their lives in a positive way.”

Thank you, John, for all that you do…this world needs more people like you!

Pictured: John, Ginette, Sherry’s House Volunteer Coordinator and Princess Lexy

Safe Homes

Adolescence can be a tumultuous time for anyone, but for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth, it can be unbearable ~ even today. Laura Farnsworth, Program Manager of Safe Homes ~ a program of The Bridge of Central Massachusetts ~ and Program Director of greater Worcester PFlag, has seen what these kids go through.

“Being a teen was tough enough without the thought of being tortured each day and not being able to control what you are. And imagine being terrified because who you are can bring you insurmountable pain. You can go through an entire school day without feeling the hope and safety you need to survive, but then there’s no support at home.”

Safe Homes provides a nurturing environment for LGBTQ youth and their straight allies. Young people age 14 – 23 can turn to this program to find peer support groups, one-on-one counselling, and clinical risk assessments and therapy, all free of charge. Counsellors help youths strategize about ways to come out, if that’s what they want to do. Adult volunteers are available to share their own stories of how they not only survived difficult circumstances, but went on to thrive and help others.

Safe Homes and its staff provide support to these youths through thick and thin, and it’s the organization’s caring presence that may be the only glimmer of hope for these kids. Farnsworth has been privy to hundreds of stories throughout the years. One story she still carries in her heart is that of a teen who was ostracized for who he was, even by those he loved the most. After being severely bullied at school and not being able to talk about it at home, the young man was almost suicidal.

“A friend of his told him about Safe Homes,” Farnsworth remembers. “He came and it was really difficult the first few times but then you saw a light come over him. He became aware of his sexual orientation and felt there was nothing wrong with him. He felt empowered enough to come out to his mom. He came from a very homophobic household, but he decided to make a plan and come out. The mom had assured him that if he was honest with her, he’d be safe. He came clean… and she rejected him immediately. There was irrevocable damage. Our clinician had to begin working with him again immediately.”

For those looking to support Safe Homes, there are a number of ways you can get involved. College students who volunteer can form unique connections with the kids, given that in some cases there is not too much difference in age.

“Our challenge used to be about getting the word out, but our numbers have grown so big,” Farnsworth says. “We started out with 10 – 15 kids a week and we’re seeing up to 80 per week now. We’re looking for supportive adults to come and volunteer. And our major challenge is always funding – we gladly accept donations through our website and we’d like for people to sign up and join our mailing list.”

For more information or ways to get involved, visit www.safehomesma.org.

 

Working for Worcester

Worcester is an incredible city, filled with rich diversity, numerous cultural opportunities, great restaurants and people who care about their neighborhoods. Jeffrey Reppucci noticed these positive attributes almost immediately after enrolling at the College of the Holy Cross. He was eager to get involved and, with the help of other college students, make the community even better.

Reppucci first founded the non-profit Students Helping Children Across Borders, Inc. in 2011 after taking a trip to Russia where he noticed a severe lack of recreational spaces for children. In 2012, he returned to Russia and helped establish a comprehensive sports and wellness program for children in Suzdal. When he returned to Holy Cross, Reppucci was determined to make certain all Worcester kids and teens, like the ones Suzdal, could reap the benefits of recreational activity. That’s when and why he founded Working for Worcester.

“I’ve been involved in sports all of my life,” Reppucci says. “I’ve been able to make healthy choices about my nutrition, my fitness, drugs and alcohol because of sports. I’m passionate about organized sports, but I’m also an advocate of kids just getting out to play and be active.”

Working for Worcester’s immediate goals, according to Reppucci, are to raise $50,000, acquire 1,000 volunteers and identify 12-15 sites to improve by Spring 2013. With the help of students from schools including Massachusetts College of Pharmacy, Assumption College and WPI, the non-profit intends to rehabilitate wellness centers that are already in existence, making them the best they can be, places that kids will be eager to spend time in.

One of their current projects involves creating a dance studio at the Worcester Youth Center. Sadly, the Center is lacking in up-to-date facilities and the space that is now being used for training a girls’ dance team, as well as other dance programs, is nothing more than a big room with a cement floor. The floor is not only limiting for the dancers, but dancing on such a surface can be harmful to dancers’ knees, ankles, and bones in general.

Working with Worcester, in partnership with students from the carpentry department of the Worcester Technical High School, plans to lay a new, professional-quality hardwood dance studio floor. They also intend to set up a surround-sound corner-mounted speaker system with docks for compact disk and iPod plug-in, repaint the walls of the studio space, hang mirrors around the perimeter, and mount a ballet stretching bar on the west side of the room.

Working for Worcester accepts monetary donations through their website and is always looking for local businesses to sponsor specific sites or projects.

“We’d be especially thrilled if businesses could supply professionals to help us at the sites, like licensed electricians,” Reppucci says. “And we’re in need of project partners who can create social media blasts and do some grass roots fundraising.” Social media blasts?  Sounds like a perfect match for some philanthropically-minded students, doesn’t it?!

For more info or to get involved, go to www.workingforworcester.com.

 

Stand Up for Kids

As the holidays approach, many of us are hit with nostalgic longing for “home.” We see ads featuring warmly lit houses filled with friends, food and family. We listen to songs that tell us “Home is where the heart is,” that there’s no place like it, no matter how far we roam.

But every day, Donna Katsoudas, Executive Director for the Stand Up for Kids Worcester Program, meets kids who don’t know how good it can feel to shake off a cold winter’s night and step into a loving home. These kids live on the streets. They do not thrive; in fact, they barely survive.

“Some common reasons that kids run away are family conflict, abuse, neglect,” Katsoudas says. “This economy hurts. Sometimes, if an 18 or 21 year-old doesn’t get a job, their parents kick them out. To survive, they’ll end up collecting change on the streets. They might get involved with stealing or running drugs. And within 48 hours of being homeless, half of the kids will turn to prostitution for money.”

Stand Up for Kids acts as a lifeline for these youths. Through their outreach efforts, they provide food and emergency items like blankets or sleeping bags. They help teens on the streets acquire forms of identification, apply for food stamps, and create goals for themselves. The organization also supports teens who are in apartments but are barely getting by providing them with clothing and grocery cards.

Katsoudas helps up to 20 kids per night, each with his or her own heart-breaking story. But being without a home doesn’t mean these kids are without hope. For example, Katsoudas works with a teen who, against all odds, is determined to make his future bright.

“We met up with a 17 year-old,” she remembers. “He was totally homeless and without support. He was originally staying with friends, but then the landlord found out and he was kicked out on the streets. His goal was to get into high school. We helped him get his documents and soon after he was put in school, he was moved into an honors class…He’s now doing an internship that pays, but he’s making just under his rent. We will still help him with grocery cards and clothing. Last time I talked to him, he was filling out applications to get into a local college for Pre-med studies.”

There are a number of ways to help Stand Up for Kids support homeless youths. The amazing Ralph’s Diner holds benefits for the organization, so supporting kids can be as easy as getting a group from your dorm to head out for a fun-filled night for an excellent cause. And although they’re always in need of volunteers, Stand Up for Kids is currently focused on getting people who are interested in helping out at a drop-in center that will be opening next year. Those who are interested in fundraising through events are encouraged to contact Katsoudas and monetary donations are always welcome.

For more information, or to get involved, go to www.standupforkids.org/worcester/default.aspx.

 

Toys for Tots Drive

Join the Shrewsbury Street Merchants as they once again partner with the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve to host the annual Toys for Tots holiday gift drive. Beginning right after Thanksgiving and continuing for four weeks into December, new toys will be collected in specially-marked containers by businesses from one end of Shrewsbury Street to the other. Donors to the Toys for Tots drive are kindly asked to observe the following guidelines: only new, unwrapped, nonviolent, nontoxic, nonreligious gifts, books, and clothing appropriate for ages 1 to 16 may be submitted.

Toys can be dropped off at the below authorized sites:

Worcester ~ 10 New Bond St.
Grafton ~ American Legion Post 92 at 69 Worcester St.
Southbridge ~ Casuabon Senior Center 153 Chestnut St.
Any MA State Police Barracks in Worcester County
Any Leominster Credit Union in Worcester County

To make a monetary donation to the 2012 Toys for Tots Campaign, please contact GySgt Thomas Miles via email at thomas.miles@usmc.mil.  Remember that all money and toys donated in our area stays within Worcester County.

Please make checks payable to “Toys For Tots” and mail to address below:

25th Marine Regiment
Attn: Toys For Tots
4 Lexington St.
Fort Devens,  MA 01432

To request toys, please contact Mrs. Anita Gallant at (508) 754-2858 or agallant@oakhillcdc.org.

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