Volunteers help neediest local families when it counts

A group of angels were hard at work at Anoka Covenant Church last week.

Volunteer Rueben Olson hauls gifts out the car for a family being sponsored by the Family-to-Family Network. (Photo by Mandy Moran Froemming)
Volunteer Rueben Olson hauls gifts out the car for a family being sponsored by the Family-to-Family Network. (Photo by Mandy Moran Froemming)
Volunteers Linda Denbleyker, Carole Davidson and Roxanne and Emily Fridberg were busy choosing appropriate gifts from Santa’s Workshop. (Photo by Mandy Moran Froemming)

Monday and Tuesday were big days for the Family-to-Family Network, a group that has been helping families during the holidays for 25 years.

They were coordinating the drop off and pick up of gifts for families in need.

This Christmas, 140 families, all with children in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, will have presents under the tree from people they will never meet.

These families are sponsored by generous local businesses, community groups, faith based organizations and individuals.

This includes all of the high schools in the district, the Adventures Plus programs and are Girl Scout and Cub Scout packs.

“The thing I have learned is that there is very little difference between those who doing the giving and those who are receiving. It’s a very fine line,” said Deon LaBathe, Family to Family volunteer and Early Childhood Family Education home visiting lead with the school district.

Some of those sponsors are former recipients themselves who are now in a position to give back.

A committee of seven solicits sponsors from all areas of the community to fill a long list of needs for the families, some as basic as laundry detergent, toothbrushes and toilet bowl cleaner.

While Family-to-Family is organized by staff of the school district, their work is done as volunteers on their own time.

The program started more than two decades ago by supporting a small group of six teen parents. It has now grown to support all sorts of families in need, which are referred by school district staff.

“Being in a person’s home and see what goes on there, you really see first hand what their front line needs are,” said LaBathe.

Staff who do home visits sometimes sit on the floor because there is no furniture or notice that dad rides his bike to work in the winter because he has no other way to get to McDonald’s.

One night in November the committee gets together and matches the sponsors with the families.

This was a particularly tough year. On the matching night they were short 26 sponsors for the 86 families identified. Between November and now, the total number of families being served grew to 140.

“We are serving the neediest of the needy families in our area,” said committee member Lori Schuetzle, who works as an ECFE special education teacher and is a member of the Anoka Covenant Church.

“You can see it by the things they are asking for – warm clothes, pajamas, socks.”

The group tries to provide for the families in a way that sustains them, by giving more than toys and lots of household items.

That includes cleaning supplies, gift cards for groceries, appliances, bed linens and clothes.

“We’re trying to provide for more than just Dec. 25,” said LaBathe. “We want to be able to carry them through to February or March.”

Largely operating under the radar, Family-to-Family is finding it increasingly difficult to secure enough sponsors.

“We just make it work,” said LaBathe of their annual efforts.

There is a Santa’s Workshop in the back where volunteers coordinate to fill the needs of those unsponsored families.

“We have friends who shop year-round for us, so we can help the families who didn’t get sponsors,” said LaBathe.

And the requests were coming in right up until the last minute, like one immigrant family who found that grandma was going to be joining them before Christmas and she doesn’t have any warm winter clothes.

The group used to try to provide beds for those who needed them, but transport was difficult and the costs are high.

“Beds are gold for a lot of these families,” said Schuetzle.

Now they recommend sponsors could fill that void with a portable airbed.

Family-to-Family does not give electronics – no gaming systems, iPads or smartphones.

“Some of the people who are sponsors don’t even have those things,” said LaBathe.

For more than 15 years Anoka Covenant Church has let Family to Family base its operations out of the Grant Street church and provides meals and snacks for the committee members and 20 community volunteers who spend two 12-hour days collecting and then distributing the gifts.

Organizers estimate it costs at least $250 to sponsor a family of four and recommend buying one or two gifts for each person. But many of the sponsors are extra generous.

Lists of needs are provided by the family, with shopping ideas and sizes. Sponsors are provided general information but no names about the family they will support.

And if an individual or an organization can’t afford to sponsor an entire family, organizers will split up the lists to make sure everyone gets taken care of, said LaBathe.

“We know there are a lot of families and needs out there,” she said. “We’re all just doing our best to give.”