HANCOCK COUNTY — To most, the winter holidays offer an opportunity to celebrate and spend time with friends and family.
For some low-income families, though, those holiday celebrations can present an unmanageable financial burden. For them, buying Christmas presents for each child would mean forgoing a utility bill or rent payment, local experts say.
But for hundreds of Hancock County families, the United Christmas Service helps fill some of those gaps. The United Way program provides low-income families with food, clothing and toys to ensure the holidays don’t bring undue stress.
To qualify for the program, families must receive a referral through caseworkers from organizations partnered with United Way. In Hancock County, families seeking referrals to the program, which will be accepted through Nov. 25, can contact any local public school to see if they meet the criteria, which is based on household income, employment stability and whether the family already receives assistance through a government program.
Healthy Families-Hancock County, a nonprofit that provides free support services to parents with newborns, at 715 E. Lincoln St. in Greenfield, also can give referrals.
Since 1952, the United Way-based program has helped hundreds of thousands of central Indiana families. In 2014, 177 households in Hancock County received assistance through the service.
Terry Miller, social worker for Weston Elementary School, said that through the years she’s referred hundreds of families from varying circumstances to the program. Some of the families need assistance because a parent recently lost a job or is dependent on government disability payments that can cover only the bare essentials, she said.
The pressure of the holidays can be crushing for parents struggling to make ends meet, Miller said.
“We all have it ingrained in our minds that when Christmas comes, it means gifts,” she said. “To parents, their kids are the most important thing in their life, and they all want to be able to give them something.”
Rachel Colclazier, site supervisor at Healthy Families Hancock County, has referred dozens of families to the program. She said those families are always relieved and grateful for the assistance.
“To know that there’s a group of people out there who care for you and your children, those families are just overwhelmed with joy,” Colclazier said.
United Christmas Service offers families assistance through multiple programs. Those with the highest need receive referrals to the Donor Program, which pairs community organizations that have volunteered to contribute food, clothing and toys to local families.
On average, each family receives about $75 per family member in goods, said Rachael Candee, who leads the program out of the Indianapolis-based United Way of Central Indiana office.
Donor groups, which often include companies and churches from the area, will arrange with each family to deliver food and wrapped presents to their home a couple of days before Christmas, Candee said.
Families who qualify to receive assistance but don’t have as high of a need as others in the area receive vouchers from United Christmas Service to purchase groceries and gifts.
After being accepted for the program, families who are struggling the most are given top priority, Candee said.
“We want to make sure families with the highest needs — those who could be struggling to buy clothes and enough food for their kids — receive help first,” she said. “From there, we work our way down the list.”
The number of families who receive assistance depends on the amount of donations received, Candee said. The organization hopes to raise about $800,000 for the voucher program, according to information on the United Way website.
Organizations or individuals interested in donating to the program or sponsoring a family can visit uwci.org/programs/united-christmas-service for more information.
United Christmas Service is seeking referrals for families in need during the holiday season. Families interested in receiving assistance may connect with counselors through any public school system. To donate to the cause or sponsor a family, visit uwci.org/programs/united-christmas-service.