Crabtree General Store & Coffee Vault in Franklin has recently transformed into a Christmas headquarters.
Standing in the lobby of North Canton Elementary School last Friday morning, one could hear and witness the frenzied nature of students and faculty alike, all eager for the upcoming holidays. And though Christmas is just around the corner, one might think otherwise with the unusually green front lawn and warm sunshine cascading across the mountains of Western North Carolina.
Passing by doorways full of smiling faces, the cinematic sounds of “The Polar Express” and Christmas music echo down the hallways. Turning into Mrs. Christina Roberts and Mrs. Carol Harkins kindergarten classroom, the teachers are wrangling all 15 of their students that day in preparation to get the space in order for their special guests.
So, just who is the “Smokey Mountain Santa”? After an appearance last week at North Canton Elementary School, Santa and Mrs. Claus (Dennis and Deborah Reed) made note of all the joy and support they’ve not only received from the community, but also aim to spread and share day in and day out.
By Colby Dunn • Correspondent
This time of year, there’s a Santa around every corner. There’s the jolly Santa flying around in Coke commercials, the harassed-looking Santa on his mall throne, the grandfatherly, rosy-cheeked Santa in “Miracle on 34th Street,” but in Alane Bartnik’s workshop, the Santas of the past come to life.
Bartnik, the owner and artist behind Nonna’s Santas, handcrafts each of her Santas after a different era, complete with painstaking research into the clothes, style and most importantly, toys from that era. It’s not just their outfits and accessories that she makes by hand, but each Santa’s face is hand molded, each with his own personal expression.
For those who help the economically disadvantaged, the holiday season raises plenty of questions: how many people need help; will they receive enough donations; and how will they ensure every child in Western North Carolina has a present under the tree this year?
Macon, Haywood, Swain and Jackson counties have a slew of agencies that work together to see that everyone gets at a little something for the holidays — be it food, clothing or toys.
The stack of applications from families needing help during the holidays has doubled in recent years for Holiday Angel in Macon County, said JoAnn Hurst with Macon Program for Progress, which heads up Holiday Angel. Before the recession hit, workers had practically memorized the people who ask for help each year. But not any more.
“The names are new. The families are new,” Hurst said. “We don’t recognize them.”
More people still need help, and fewer people can afford to help.
“There are just a lot more people in need right now,” said Robert Cochran, director of Jackson County Department of Social Services. The agency has seen the number of food stamp recipients in the county double, he added.
The well-known Toys for Tots program, which has chapters across the region, has also noticed a decline in giving.
“As the economy has slowed down, we have to cut back, too,” said Randy Hughes, the area Toys for Tots coordinator.
In response, the nonprofit tries to give each child four items — down from eight in previous years, he said.
“There is still time to give,” Hughes added.
Thousands of needy families in the region will ultimately be matched up with gift givers, but making sure no one falls through the cracks — and that families aren’t double-dipping by applying for holiday assistance through more than one agency — takes massive coordination.
“It may be three or four agencies working to get that one family food to eat,” said JoAnn Hurst of Macon Program for Progress, a nonprofit agency.
Macon Program for Progress heads a multi-organizational program called Holiday Angel. For Macon County, it is the central point of connectivity between givers and receivers.
Those in need either know about the program or get referred to it by the Macon County Department of Social Services.
Collaboration among the government agencies and non profits helps them prevent people from falling through the cracks.
“I feel like we pretty well cover them,” Hurst said. “I don’t feel like we are (missing people) with as close as we are working with other agencies now.”
Families needing assistance file applications, with details about their income, their children, what they want and, more importantly, what they need. Once the organization verifies the information, the names are passed on to individuals or groups who want to sponsor one or multiple families.
Jackson County is more proactive than most when it comes to distributing the names of families in need of help during the holidays. Jackson social services taps its database of families receiving assistance, and with their permission, passes their names on to donors — without needy families having to formally apply.
One group that sponsors needy families in Jackson County is MedWest’s EMS team, which sponsors families every year by buying them gifts and supplying a meal.
A chapter of Toys for Tots in the region works with multiple agencies in Swain, Macon and Jackson counties to distribute between 14,000 and 18,000 toys this year.
The nonprofit collects the toys then passes them on to other charitable organizations to hand out and works with them to ensure people are not already receiving assistance from another organization.
“Our mission is to make sure that no child is left out,” Hughes said.
Haywood County’s Operation Christmas Love is one of many Western North Carolina programs that receives toys from Toys for Tots. It is a collaborative program run by Haywood Christian Ministries, with help from Haywood County DSS.
The program, which helps about 300 people each year, places trees bearing tags with children’s names as well as an item they want for Christmas at various locations in the county, including Belks, Walmart and Sagebrush Steakhouse in Waynesville.
“I think we have been very blessed this year,” said Jennifer Mason, who helps with Operation Christmas Love. “This far, I’ve not seen a decrease; so that’s been wonderful.”
Hughes said the nonprofit has received about the same number of applications for aid as last year despite requiring people to fill out the forms online.
While many agencies focus on giving children a happy holiday, kids are not the only ones in need during the holiday season. A number of organizations, including Mountain Projects in Haywood County, gather items for senior citizens who may rely solely on social security income.
Mountain Projects puts together boxes for senior citizens that include writing tablets, stamps, shampoos and lotions, among other things.
“Our goal is to make sure every senior has something for Christmas,” said Patsy Dowling, executive director of Mountain Projects. “Christmas is a really sad time for them.”
The nonprofit will be collecting donations for both children and seniors through Dec. 9.
While the deadline might seem a bit early, Dowling said Mountain Projects delivers the presents a week or two before Christmas to avoid snow, which could prevent their elves from distributing all their goods.
There are so many ways to give during the holidays. Contact a nonprofit charity near you or your county department of social services to find out how you can help this holiday season.