The holiday season is often a time of joy and celebration for many. But for some Oklahomans, it would be all but impossible to celebrate this time of year without a helping hand.Throughout the metro, programs and organizations have dedicated their efforts to doing just that.
From domestic abuse to natural disasters to economic downturn, a vast number of factors play into the lives of thousands of people within the state. During the holidays, however, these factors can seem amplified with the onslaught of gift buying, seasonal dinners and various other monetary demands that may surface.
With some Oklahoma families living in shelters, others living in poverty and many the victims of violence and displacement, the holiday season can seem anything but cheerful.
At the YWCA Oklahoma City, the only certified shelter for battered women and children in Oklahoma County, the focus is on empowering women that have been affected by domestic violence and sexual assault.
"The women that come to our shelter often leave everything they have behind," said Josh Beasley, chief development officer. "At that point, the last things on a mother's mind are Christmas decorations and presents."
In addition to offering counseling, transitional housing and a laundry list of additional educational services, the YWCA Oklahoma City also helps provide Christmas gifts for the women and children who participate in the organization's program.
Annually, about 75 families are given the opportunity to partake in the Santa Store.
"This program is one of our favorite ways to help women and children in our shelter because it gives us the opportunity to touch their lives in a different way," Beasley said.
Comprised of two rooms, the store is filled with toys for children as well as gifts for the women. Rather than distributing gifts to the families, Beasley said the program is designed to give both mother and child the ability to choose items as if they truly were at a store doing their shopping.
The Red Cross of Central Oklahoma services more than 5,000 children living in low-income households through the Holiday Stocking Program. Almost six months before the holiday season arrives, a group of volunteers sews stockings that are eventually filled with items ranging from necessities, such as toiletries and school supplies, to entries found on kids' wish lists.
"The children are always so excited," said Annie Lucas, volunteer coordinator. "Many times, that stocking is often the only gift that child is getting that year."
By the third week of December, the stockings find their way into the hands of kids in various schools and head-start programs sponsored by the Department of Human Services. The donations come from citizens, church groups and local businesses.
Communities throughout the state are also offering helping hands to families in need this holiday season through programs such as The Salvation Army's Angel Tree, wherein participants can adopt an "angel." Children from families that qualify for the program " determined through their financial status, among other factors " are listed on a gift list, and an angel is placed on a Christmas tree in Penn Square Mall.
The gifts get picked up by parents prior to Christmas and have no markings that indicate they were donated through The Salvation Army, said spokeswoman Heide Brandes, because more important than where the presents came from is that a merry Christmas is had by the child.
"It's amazing when you see the looks on the parents' faces when you walk up with a bike or some other gift from the kids' wish list," Brandes said. "They often cry, start weeping on the spot from gratitude, and the next thing you know, everyone is crying. It's just rewarding."
The Angel Tree is the largest holiday program The Salvation Army Central Oklahoma Area Command hosts during the holidays. Others include a Thanksgiving brunch and a special program for those staying in their shelters.
Photo: Josh Beasley, chief development officer at YWCA Oklahoma City, stands inside the Santa Store.
Photo Credit: Mark Hancock