Photo Caption: The Santa Tree stands earlier this month at The Market on State.
In its 25th year this holiday season, the Athens County Children Services Santa Tree project managed to collect presents for 1,400 local children this year, tying its most ever.
Children Services held its Santa Tree distribution last Thursday, with families lining up in the inclement weather to retrieve gifts that were bought for the children.
For the past 25 years, Children Services has been running the project. The way it works, a tree is set up in The Market on State mall on East State Street. It's decorated with ornaments that each display the first name of a child, his or her age, and several gift requests.
The tree is put up before Thanksgiving.
The project relies solely on the generosity of the public, and people are invited to select a name from the tree and purchase the requested gifts for the child. The gifts are then wrapped and given to Children Services, eventually being distributed.
Children Services spokesperson Sherri Oliver extended appreciation Friday to all of those who helped make a cheerful holiday season for so many children.
"It went really well," she said. "Our previous highest number was also 1,400, which was two years ago. So we've seen that same spike again."
Oliver said that gifts were given out to almost 400 different families on Thursday.
"It went really smoothly," she said. "I think we have three gifts left at the agency that haven't been picked up yet, out of 1,400. So we're feeling pretty good."
Planning for the project begins in late August, she said. That's when families with involvement in Children Services are contacted, and they submit applications including information about the child and three gift requests.
Families with no standing relationship with Children Services are eligible as well, Oliver said. These families have to be living at or below the federal poverty line, she said.
The agency begins taking applications from these families at the beginning of November.
"We saw a pretty sharp increase in families coming from that, I guess you could call it, public end this year," she said. "We saw an increase of about 60 families or so. So it was pretty substantial."
The number of "public" families was about 350 this year, she said, while it's normally around 300.
Nonetheless, she said, the Santa Tree Project was able to help everyone.
"We had so much support from the community this year," she said. "We really had such a great response."
Oliver attributed that, in part, to the fact that Ohio University is now on semesters and more students are in town doing holiday shopping locally, bringing them out to The Market on State.
"We always have a really amazing response from the year-around residents in the county," she said. "But we saw a huge increase this year in students groups and just students coming out to the mall and choosing children from the tree."
She said that this helps foster a connection between students and the community that they might not have otherwise.
"We were really glad that everyone was around until mid-December this year," she said.
Oliver said that distribution day is probably her favorite part of the whole project because they get to interact with the families directly.
"People are just so incredibly grateful," she said. "For a lot of these kids, these are the only gifts they'll be getting this season, and the parents are just wonderful. They're so grateful."
She said that some families picking up gifts brought toddlers and babies with them to the distribution. Children Service staff made sure that each of the kids got a stuffed animal or something to bring home that day.
"They were pretty excited," she said. "They weren't sure exactly what was going on but they had gotten a gift out of nowhere, which was adorable."
Even with the poor weather on Thursday, everything went well, Oliver said.
"For standing out there in driving rain, I think everyone was pretty upbeat," she said. "This is our 25th year doing this project,and it's something we'll continue to do as long as the community supports us."
She again noted that the entire thing is funded by the generosity of the community, and she thanked everyone for their help.
"For some parents, paying the bills and putting food on the table is all they can do. That's where the Santa Tree project comes in," she said.