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'Families Helping Families' makes direct connection to answer critical wish lists
By Jennifer Johnston
Dec 5, 2012 - 9:18:55 AM

Sponsor-provided bicycles, wrapped gifts, and boxes of food await delivery to families in need at Palmetto Project’s Families Helping Families warehouse.
Palmetto Project staff and local agency case workers team up to deliver donated gifts to area families.
The FHF warehouse opens for the 2012 season, and a few of the thousands of gifts that will be donated this year make their way inside.

‘Tis the season, in many respects, of compulsory wants.
There’s the anxiety of anticipating what our loved ones want. And that backed-into-a-corner feeling when a parent or spouse asks what we want. And the television ads and store circulars telling all of us what to want.
But in many households, this pressure is silenced by an unfulfilled list of basic needs. Clothing, food, and health items relentlessly dominate the wish list, eclipsing toys, electronics, and even transportation.
Palmetto Project, one of South Carolina’s most successful non-profit organizations for bringing about positive social and economic change through the state, is poised to help clear the tally of needs for Lowcountry families. Through its Families Helping Families (FHF) program, thousands of South Carolinians have received “safety net” assistance each holiday season for 22 years by matching families-in-need with group or individual sponsors.
Shelli Quenga, Director of Programs for Palmetto Project, tells us that the organization has historically stepped into projects where South Carolina falls 49th or 50th in state ranking, for example, areas within children’s health, fluency, and voter turnout. But two decades ago, leaders at Palmetto Project noticed that there was an abundance of charitable outfits trying to coordinate holiday mission projects, and recognized that their own group had the experience and connections to streamline this work to match the right resources with South Carolinians most in need.
Beginning in the early fall of each year, agencies such as Department of Social Services (Charleston, Berkeley, and Dorchester counties), Berkeley-Dorchester Head Start, South Santee Community and Senior Center, and local school districts (Charleston, Berkeley, and Dorchester 4) refer individuals and families to Quenga and her staff. Betty Pressley, a case worker with Berkeley-Dorchester Head Start, tells us that of the 617 children in her program, 80 are being referred to Families Helping Families this year. “I identify the families with the greatest need,” Pressley explains. “And assist those families with the program application, making lists, and creating a delivery schedule.”
Once the roster of participant individuals and families is assembled, FHF coordinators set about linking each with a sponsoring family, group, or individual. Though the program’s name suggests an emphasis on one multi-person household assisting another, recipients are often non-traditional families or even individual senior citizens. Carol Williams, a Cainhoy peninsula resident who is caring for five grandchildren in addition to her own twin sons, is a first-time FHF participant this year. “We are hoping to get help so we can afford to fix up our home,” Williams shares. “We live in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house so, you know, it gets a little tight.”
FHF sponsors may actually request a specific “type” of participant, and Quenga tells us that many do just that. “People can specify such things as ages of children, number of family members, residents of a certain county, those with disabilities,” she assures. “We also help seniors, so we sometimes have folks call and say ‘my mom is no longer living, can I help an elderly female?’ It’s a way of really honoring their loved one.”
Sponsors are then provided with a detailed wish list from their beneficiary family or individual, including names, ages, and clothing sizes. The preponderance of need is for winter clothing items and food, and Quenga tell us that FHF sponsors report an average spend of $25 to $50 per recipient. Coordinators ask that sponsors cover the list of needs first, then put an amount within their means toward a grocery gift card for a nice holiday meal. Of course, FHF also encourages its participants to add more “wishful” items to their lists, and program sponsors often come through beyond just the basics, especially for the children. “Whether they’re poor or not, the kids see the same ads and ask for the same popular toys,” Quenga relates. FHF consistently sees an abundance of bicycle donations, as well as other hot-ticket toys. Last year, a sponsoring family even purchased a brand new washer and dryer for the family with whom they’d been matched.
With over 200 families and seniors to be sponsored, Palmetto Project is once again teaming up with ABC News 4 to get the word out about FHF and how to get involved. The station helps promote the program by driving home what is at its core: the critical gaps experienced by Lowcountry families. By sharing with viewers video profiles of those in need, a human element underscores the urgency and inspires people to action. Video clips introduce families living paycheck to paycheck, and often burdened with health challenges on top of that financial trouble. Quenga shared one such example: “Last year, we had a mom with a severe back injury whose child fell ill, and then the dad was laid off.”
The pre-screening process for participants ensures that the most dire circumstances are addressed first, and that there is no duplication of effort. For the majority of recipients, the FHF program is a one-time experience, giving them a boost as they get back on their feet. It has been a seasonal program for the past two decades, but beginning in 2013, it will become a year-round program. Quenga explains that each quarter, FHF will focus on a specific need; for example, in the first quarter, special effort will be given to collecting health products and medical care education. “Many people don’t realize that Medicaid covers dental services, and that food stamps don’t buy health items,” Quenga asserts.
Melissa Johnson, a local mother of four children ranging in age from two to sixteen, may be one of those year-round participants. Johnson was connected with FHF by Berkeley-Dorchester Head Start in 2011, when she found herself out of work and unable to purchase warm clothing for her growing kids or put enough food on the table. Her sponsor family made it a holiday to remember, gifting the Huger residents with new clothes, as well as bikes, new toys, and fresh school supplies. But Johnson is still struggling to provide for her children, and tells us that she would be grateful to participate in the program again. “It let me know that there are people out there looking out for others,” Johnson recalls. “I am so thankful to the family that helped us.”
There’s still time to get connected with a family or individual in need through FHF. All gifts must be turned in by December 12 in order for gifts to be delivered by case workers the third week of December, but the participant profiles are ready to go with a quick turnaround. If you are interested in helping to fulfill the many needs that exist this holiday season, visit and click on the Families Helping Families link, or call 724-7100.  

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