In St. Francois County one out of four children between the ages of one month and 18 years old lives at or below the poverty line. That accounts for 25 percent of the approximately 10,000 children in the county.
St. Francois County Community Partnership Director Al Sullivan says outward appearances can be deceiving.
“We may look prosperous on the surface as you drive up some of our streets and thoroughfares,” Sullivan said. “But, we have a lot of poverty in our towns and rural areas of our county.
“Each (of the county’s five) school district has more than 50 percent of their students who are eligible for free and reduced lunches.”
For 17 years the Season of Hope program through the St. Francois County Community Partnership has worked to make sure the holiday season is joyous for students in all five school districts in the county.
The partnership is planning to serve more than 1,500 children through this year’s Season of Hope program – up from last year’s total of 1,358.
The Season of Hope program makes the holiday’s bright for the families of those children.
Children are referred to the program through staff at the five school districts, the Children’s Division of the Department of Family Services or the East Missouri Action Agency.
The goal is for each child to receive about $75 in clothing or other needed items, including at least one toy. At least $105,000 needs to be raised through donations and sponsorships based on the number of children served, Sullivan estimates.
The work begins early because all the unwrapped gifts of clothing and toys must be delivered prior to each district’s December break.
The unwrapped gifts of clothing and toys are packed according to the children’s wish lists into plastic garbage bags so the contents remain hidden. Parents take the items home and hide them, until they can be wrapped for Christmas day.
Sullivan said one of the most important ways to help is through sponsoring a family.
“When sponsor a child or a family, we give you a list (with the ages, needs and sizes) and you go shopping and bring the items back,” he said. “We then get those gifts to the referring agency.
Sullivan said local congregations, civic organizations, schools, businesses and individuals sponsor families each year.
“I get many church Sunday School groups, youth groups, high school clubs, sororities and lodges … the whole gamut of agencies and people who want to do something at Christmas time can take one child, a couple of children, a family or two … is a tremendous help in getting these children served,” Sullivan said. “I want to thank the tremendous number of people who have continued to support us through sponsorships or direct donations over the years that have already come forward this year. We are in our last push and really need others to help as well.”
In addition, the toy and clothing drives help for those children without an individual sponsor in the program.
“If your club, organization, Sunday School class or anyone else wants to sponsor a new toy or new clothing drive … many of them do …,” Sullivan said. “Clothing items of various sizes are donated because we have all of these children from preschool to high school age. We take those socks, underwear, coats, jeans and fill the list of those not sponsored.”
Another way to help the program is by a cash donation to be used by volunteers to shop for the families.
“Anyone can participate in the Season of Hope,” Sullivan said. “From one individual through whole congregations.”
For information on how to sponsor a family, hold a toy or clothing drive or give a cash donation call 573-431-3173.
This year’s deadline for cash and toy donations is Dec. 8 in order for the items to be ready by Dec. 20 – the date many of the schools begin their Christmas breaks.
Sullivan said donation programs such as the United Way of St. Francois County’s Girls Night Out and the Parkland Toy Run help out each year.
The Christian Motorcycle Association Chapter 620 – Parkland Cycle Servants toy run had more than 200 participants who donated toys for the Season of Hope program as well as 939 pounds of food for the local food pantries.
The Girls’ Night Out is scheduled from 5 to 7 p.m. on Thursday at Twin Oaks Winery, located at 6470 Route F in Farmington. Attendees are asked to bring an unwrapped toy or gift card for Season of Hope in addition to the $20 donation for United Way.
The program received about 150 toys along with a number of gift cards in 2014 and Sullivan anticipates a successful event this year as well.
The partnership works with other service groups, such as the Shop with a Cop program, in order to provide services for as many individuals as possible.
“We plan to serve 1,500 plus, Shop with a Cop serves 500 to 600,” Sullivan said. “That still leaves a minimum of 400 kids we haven’t met who we know are out there because of nothing other than poverty guidelines.”
Sullivan said statistics from the Annie E. Casey Foundation show St. Francois County has the highest total of students living at or below the poverty level compared to the five bordering counties.
“There is no county that borders St. Francois County that has as bad of figures that we have,” he said, adding for years the foundation has tracked the numbers of the millions of children in this country at risk of poor educational, economic, social and health outcomes.
Shawnna Robinson is the managing editor for the Farmington Press and can be reached at 573-518-3628 or firstname.lastname@example.org