Adopt-a-Family Helps Brighten Christmas

By Bill Slocum
Contributing Editor

Christmas will be a happier day for 56 area families this year, thanks to a holiday program run out of Family Centers in Greenwich connecting them with generous benefactors willing to be their “Secret Santa.”

The program, called “Adopt-a-Family,” began in 2009 and has grown every year since, according to Family Centers’ director of community engagement, Jennifer Flatow.

“It’s one of the most exciting things we have going on during the holiday season,” she said. “We’re providing bedding, linens, necessities like winter coats, even toys and games. It’s one of the best parts of my job.”

Flatow was speaking from her corner office at Family Centers headquarters on Arch Street, where the floor is covered with plastic bags and cardboard boxes filled with presents for 15 families. The gift lode was dropped off just the day before by one of Adopt-a-Family’s business sponsors, Keller Williams Realty in Stamford.

“This is a little different from Toys for Tots, where you are just providing toys,” Flatow explained. “Here we are providing gifts for the whole family. We want everyone to have things to open for Christmas.”

A private, non-profit agency providing education and other human services to children and families in Greenwich, Stamford, New Canaan, and Darien, Family Centers serves some 23,000 clients. Many are needy, in pre-school programs at housing projects or in individual counseling. Often, Flatow said, a Family Centers case worker or staff member will spot a family that looks in need of material aid.

“Sometimes it’s an outward struggle,” she said. “Sometimes they approach the site manager of a pre-school and say: ‘I’m really struggling, I need assistance.’ Other times you can tell when a family needs assistance.” The Family Centers staff member then prepares a case narrative for the family, recommending them for Adopt-a-Family.

There are more worthy candidates than places for them in the Adopt-a-Family program; Flatow said one of the toughest parts of her job is selecting the neediest cases. “Being a mom, you just want to help every child out there,” she said.

She reads one case narrative about a ten-year-old Greenwich boy, whose father is incarcerated and whose mother is in a new relationship. The child, the narrative explains, is suffering from “low self-esteem.”

“He’s looking for something positive this Christmas,” Flatow said. “We matched him with a donor, and he is going to be getting some wonderful Christmas gifts.”

The selection process is kept secret from the recipient families themselves, right up until when the presents are delivered. The selection process runs through the fall and into winter, with Flatow and her staff trying to recruit donors right up to the holiday season.

Donors play a big role in the process. They are given the case narratives. The family’s name is blocked out, but some personal information is provided.

“From sitting in a therapy session with a child, a case worker might know that a child’s favorite toy is Legos, or their favorite color is pink, or they love to draw,” Flatow said. “So they put those kinds of things in there.”

A list of items is presented to the donor on the family’s behalf. Then the donor is asked to shop for the items. Donors even wrap and tag the presents before dropping them off at Family Centers, Flatow noted. “Just late last night, I got an email from a woman who asked: ‘Is it okay if I sign my tags from Santa?’ I thought sure, why not.”

Presents often run the gamut from the needed to the fun, with donors encouraged to buy as if for their own loved ones. Basics are encouraged, and in some cases critical: A case of diapers is part of the trove being bestowed on a family which just had a baby delivered prematurely.

One of the tags on a present in Flatow’s office is hand-addressed to “Mom who deserves a treat.”

One regular donor to the Adopt-a-Family program is Pam Caffray, an Old Greenwich resident and longtime Family Centers board member. She describes it as “a holiday giveback” to families in need.

Lately Caffray has taken to recruiting friends and families to adopt a family each: “My sister-in-law did it last year. Her seven-year-old daughter was shocked all this little girl wanted was a pair of mittens. We live in an affluent community, and it’s important to give back to those in need in the same community.”

Flatow said the popularity of Adopt-a-Family is easy to explain.

“Everyone who takes part in this program says it makes you feel so good,” she said. “Because there is so much wanting the most expensive this or that, to see a family who just wants things, moms that want a stroller, kids who need pajamas, it’s really nice for them. Our board members and donors say it’s one of the most gratifying things they take part in.”

Family Centers CEO Bob Arnold agreed: “We see families with needs throughout the year. This presents an opportunity to assist working families struggling with their day-to-day needs.”

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