More than 500 families facing a bleak Christmas will now have presents for each member to open this year. The standard toys like boardgames, hoola-hoops, basketballs, bikes, and Barbies are wrapped and ready for delivery, but also included are gifts of shampoo, clothing irons, and kitchen pots and pans.
“You don’t think of these things as Christmas gifts,” said Lany Lyons, an executive assistant at NuStar Energy, who dropped off 12 bags of wrapped presents for a family of seven – a father and six kids. “But it’s those household things we take for granted that can mean the most.”
Lyons’ donation came from the employees in NuStar Energy’s Information Systems department. More departments are following suit, she said.
Companies, individuals, and families across San Antonio have stepped up to “adopt” a low-income family this year – a tradition that the Family Service Association of San Antonio (FSA) began more than 20 years ago.
FSA’s Neighborhood Place location in the Westside, a former elementary school at 3014 Rivas St., was bustling with activity Tuesday morning as volunteers, many from Aramark, sorted through donated gifts and matched them with families. Thousands of gifts already were lined up in bags. Thousands more were grouped into piles to supplement the bags just in case one family member came up short on the gift list.
“We want to make sure everyone opens a gift on Christmas,” said FSA Vice President Xochitl Cortez Davis. This includes senior citizens, who began receiving their gifts Tuesday morning from volunteer delivery drivers. “We wouldn’t be able to do it without the support of the community.”
Most of the adopted families are FSA clients. The social service nonprofit has year-round programs and resources including child care referrals, personal and financial counseling, technology education for teens, housing and employment assistance, and much more. The Adopt a Family program is the most visible of their programming perhaps because it’s direct family-to-family contact and the concept is straight-forward and heart-warming for all involved.
FSA clients sign up and make a list of needs and wants (within reason, of course), including the sex and age of each family member. “Adopters” sign up and buy as much as they can on that list. Usually all of it. They wrap each gift and can drop off the typically huge bags at the Neighborhood Place as early as October. Adopted families have from Dec. 10 to Dec. 24 to pick up their gifts, which comes with at least one large box of food from the Redeemer Presbyterian Church.
Since its opening in 2007, The Neighborhood Place has hosted more than 300,000 people between FSA services and 12 on-site partners, Davis said, including Head Start, KidShare, and Dance Therapy. FSA and organizations at The Neighborhood Place also connect clients to an even larger network of off-site partners. The expansive center has become a one-stop shop for anyone in the community seeking shelter, food, counseling.
Down the hall from the old cafeteria filled with toys is the FSA’s Financial Empowerment Center where Director Kim Arispe oversees four counselors that offer free, one-on-one sessions with anyone who walks in the door – who has preferably called ahead to make an appointment.
“These are not classes,” she said. “We’re offering personalized advice.”
The center focuses on saving, banking, debt reduction, and credit score improvement, but can help with almost any financial predicament. Refinancing a home loan, going through bankruptcy, and dealing with predatory payday loan companies are also common, Arispe said. Since the payday loan ordinance was passed last year, she hasn’t seen a decrease in those predatory practices.
“There are too many hoops for people to jump through to report it … it’s easier just to come here and deal with it,” she said.
During the two years the center has been operating, its staff has helped their clients reduce $1.7 million in combined debt and save $217,000, Arispe said.
In a separate building behind the main campus, the Teen Tech Center is empty and calm in before the center opens from 3:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. LED light projects lay unfinished on the table. At least a dozen computers await kids aged 11-18 to work and experiment with state-of the art software. Other tools include a mini music recording studio, video and still cameras, a green screen, and more.
The Teen Tech Center is free and open to the public, all kids have to do is have their parents fill out a permission and information packet. Voila: free, educational after school programming.
But I digress – something that’s easy to do when writing about FSA. It’s hard to not mention all the important programming they do every day. The holiday season gives us all a good reason to take note.
*Featured/top image: Hundreds of presents arranged by type at the Family Service Association. Photo by Iris Dimmick.