When I worked for a foster care agency, it used to break my heart that the teens were often lost in the system. And as the person who organized the holiday projects, it fell to me to figure out how to solicit donations appropriate for their age group.
This is not easy. Most programs are about toys and toys are for younger kids. We would often get items like portable CD players or handheld poker games for the older youth – one of which was very outdated and the other very inappropriate. I started two programs that really helped – adopting an entire family including the foster parents and a gift card drive for the teens. I carried them with me when I moved to another agency that also served formerly homeless families.
And here’s what would happen. We’d ask everyone to list items they wanted as gifts. Most of the young people would list things like “sheets” or “towels” or “underwear.” I cannot tell you how much time I would invest trying to find out what size sheets, what color they liked and sharing that with donors. But I can tell you that they would rarely ask for something extravagant because they lacked so many basics even with all of the help from the organization. Often, I would ask the donor to consider a gift card because youth should get to pick out their own underwear. Or sheets, right?
That’s why gift cards are such great gifts. Not only is it a present, but it creates an opportunity to for the young person to select something that they want. And that’s important to any youth, right? I know its fun to shop and play Santa, but you can find ways to do that.
This is a true story that took place when I worked with the foster care agency:
Karen was an 18 year old foster care youth still in high school with her own one year old. Both were in a foster home where Karen was learning how to parent from her foster mother and making plans for when she graduated high school. At one donation event at a local church, a man had come up to me and bashfully handed me a $25 gift card to Rite Aid – he was embarrassed because he had forgotten the event and this was the only nearby retailer open on a Sunday morning. I assured him it would be well received and added it to my collection. When staff were collectively deciding which teen received which cards, Karen’s caseworker suggested that she would like the Rite-Aid card to either buy baby items or perhaps even some little luxury for herself.
A few weeks later, the caseworker casually told me that when she gave the card to Karen, she had inexplicably burst into tears. It seems Karen wasn’t able to purchase something for her son because she had no money of her own for such things. An Elmo doll at the local Rite Aid had caught her eye and it was under $25. So Karen received the gift of being able to select a new Christmas gift for her son.
I returned to the church a year later and shared that story. I could not remember which member donated that card, but I thanked them profusely for making it possible for Karen to have the gifts of dignity and choice for her son. Those are sacred gifts.
To give you some perspective, the parents (mom and/or dad) would usually also ask for sheets and cleaning supplies. Imagine receiving cleaning supplies as your holiday gift and how happy that would make you because you can’t buy those items with SNAP (food stamps)? That’s humility and gratitude.
When you are selecting your holiday giving projects, please think about this for a minute. Find a program that works with youth and teens and donate gift cards. But please think it through – retailers that are accessible by bus, affordable and youth friendly. A $25 gift card to Macy’s is not particularly useful if you don’t have extra cash to buy a $40 top and not every young person finds bargain shopping to be a “gift” – but a retailer like Old Navy or The Gap or Target, those all work. Drug stores are very useful – Rite Aid, Walgreens, CVS. A Starbucks or other coffeehouse gift card is often a really nice treat. If you are considering food locations, Subway is usually easy to access and has nutritious options.
- Shelters and homelessness programs working with youth
- Foster care agencies or residential programs for youth
- Afterschool programs
- The GLCC or an LGBTQ youth program in your community
One local program, Play It Forward, offers gently used items to youth up to age 16 – they are currently asking people to donate gently used books that might be appropriate for that age range because books have been popular in past years. I think this is a phenomenal program because it is open to any family and they confirmed to me that they are LGBTQ friendly.
We cannot expect our young people to just pretend it doesn’t matter or that they don’t matter because they aren’t little kids. Whether you celebrate a religious holiday or a cultural holiday, there's no escaping the fact that so many people - young and old alike - go without during this time of celebration. And the sadness and pain of doing so may become familiar as children age into young adults, but it should not be something we expect them to endure without our support and care.
Note: I do work with Pittsburgh's LGBTQ Community Center (GLCC) which serves hundreds of youth ages 13-24 each year. Some are homed & supported and others do not have those things. If you would like to support the youth of the GLCC, you can make a donation via Paypal or by mail or in person to Gay and Lesbian Community Center, 210 Grant Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15219.
More from parenting