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Campus community partnering with local groups in Christmas Connection effort

The Western Carolina University community is again partnering with a number of local foundations, governmental units, businesses, churches and organizations to help the Christmas Connection of Jackson County provide new clothing and toys for approximately 1,000 children who need assistance during the holiday season.

Marilyn Chamberlin, associate professor of sociology, and Betty Farmer, professor of communication, assumed leadership positions for the 27-year-old effort last year, and they report several developments continue to expand its outreach. The Christmas Connection is now led by a volunteer advisory group, in affiliation with the Jackson County Family Resource Center, a unit of Southwestern Child Development Commission. The commission provides fiduciary leadership under all policies of the nonprofit agency. “The Christmas Connection is unique because the organization is coordinated by volunteers with no paid staff,” Chamberlin said.

“The Christmas Connection relies on many people with various specialties to help the children in our community,” she said. “We are fortunate to have the support of WCU students, faculty and staff working alongside community members to sponsor children, donate money and items, and volunteer their time.”

Farmer, who has been leading the Christmas Connection’s fundraising and public relations initiatives, recently announced progress toward reaching the drive’s $75,000 goal (including a combination of monetary gifts and in-kind donations of new toys and clothing). “We’ve had several large gifts, including $10,000 in matching grants from the Hennessee Foundation and Jackson County,” she said. “The McKee Charitable Foundation Inc. donates approximately $2,000 every year, and Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort will be giving us $1,000 this year.”

Also, Allison Outdoor Advertising in Sylva is donating a billboard for the month of November, and the Christmas Connection has a new brochure thanks to design services and printing from WCU’s Print Shop and Mail Services, Farmer said.

More sponsors are needed

Christmas Connection volunteers are making a special effort this year to increase the number of individuals and organizations who sponsor children. Individuals who have donated money in the past are being encouraged to sponsor a child or children instead.

Sponsors receive specific information about a child, children or family, such as clothing sizes and desired toys. They then shop for the items and deliver them unwrapped to the Christmas Connection distribution center, which dispenses the gifts to the families. Sponsors spend approximately $75 per child.

“Our goal is 400 sponsors, which is double the number of sponsors we had in 2014,” Farmer said. “We have developed a campaign to increase the number of churches that sponsor children, and our response to date has been excellent. For example, St. Jude’s Catholic Church in Cashiers has committed to sponsoring 50 children.

“We also are encouraging employees at a variety of businesses and educational institutions to sponsor children,” Farmer said. “Since $75 may be more than one individual is able to contribute, we encourage departments or offices to pool their resources to sponsor a child or children. For example, one staff member might agree to buy the pants, another might buy the shirt, another a toy and so forth. Or, employees of a particular unit could contribute $75, and then a representative of that unit would shop for the items and deliver them to the Christmas Connection.”

Residential Living tags trees with gift requests

Student Virginia Spencer (left) and Ami Williams, residential living assistant, decorate a holiday tree with "bear backer" ornaments containing the names of children who need gifts.

Student Virginia Spencer (left) and Ami Williams, residential living assistant, decorate a holiday tree with “bear backer” ornaments containing the names of children who need gifts.

WCU’s Department of Residential Living recently erected and decorated holiday trees with Christmas Connection teddy bear ornaments – replacing the angel wings ornaments of previous years – that identify toys children would like as presents. Faculty, staff and students can become “bear backers” by taking the ornaments, purchasing the toys and delivering them unwrapped to the Residential Living office on first floor west in Scott Hall. The trees will be located in A.K. Hinds University Center, Courtyard Dining Hall and the Residential Living lobby through Friday, Dec. 4.

The idea for having “bear backers” evolved during a brainstorming session involving Farmer’s public relations students. Her students are involved in many facets of the Christmas Connection effort. “The students wanted to give community members the opportunity to have the children’s backs, so to speak,” Farmer said.

Another option for WCU faculty and staff interested in donating toys will be to bring them to the holiday gatherings hosted by Chancellor David Belcher and Susan Belcher at the Chancellor’s Residence.

Athletics continues the teddy bear theme

WCU’s Department of Athletics will be holding a “Teddy Bear Toss” on Sunday, Nov. 15, at halftime of the men’s home basketball game versus UNC Asheville. Fans can bring a new stuffed animal that can be given to a local child to toss onto the Ramsey Center basketball court. “This was a huge success last year,” Farmer said. “WCU’s athletics program has been and continues to be a great supporter.”

Athletics hosted a “Sock It To ’Em” promotion during the football game against Mercer on Oct. 10, which brought in a collection of socks that will become part of the children’s gifts.” In addition, WCU’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee is planning to sponsor 75 children.

“While we take part in other charitable initiatives, the Christmas Connection and its local ties have always been a large part of our service to the community of Jackson County,” said Stacey Miller, senior woman administrator in the Department of Athletics.

Dillsboro Lights and Luminaries provides collection boxes

A local town’s annual holiday tradition will continue to be a focal point for Christmas Connection collections. Boxes will be placed in several high-traffic locations in Dillsboro to accept new and unwrapped toys during all four nights of the town’s Lights and Luminaries celebration – Friday, Dec. 4; Saturday, Dec. 5; Friday, Dec. 11; and Saturday, Dec. 12. The Dillsboro Merchants Association will collect the toys and relay them to the Christmas Connection.

Southwestern Community College is partnering with WCU for “College Night” in Dillsboro on Dec. 4. SCC’s community service committee, SCC Cares, has chosen the Christmas Connection as one of its fall service projects.

“Saturday Sampler” proceeds to be donated

The Jackson County Recreation Center in Cullowhee will host a fundraiser benefiting Christmas Connection on Saturday, Dec. 5, beginning at 10 a.m. “The Saturday Sampler Fitness Fundraiser” will feature fitness instructors leading participants in a variety of exercise routines, including Zumba, Pilates, yoga, strength training and step aerobics. Participants will be asked to contribute a minimum of $10 to attend the class, with the participant raising the most money receiving a free one-month membership to that facility.

New distribution center secured

Chamberlin has coordinated the effort to secure a new base of operations for the charity, and Duke LifePoint/Harris Regional Hospital has donated the use of a vacant medical office suite at 70 Westcare Drive, Suite 401, in Sylva to use as the site to organize and distribute gifts for the children. “Since we serve nearly 1,000 children, having this space is essential, even critical,” Chamberlin said.

Through class projects, internships and club activities, Chamberlin’s sociology students also are helping to organize and record inventory at the distribution center, enter client data and fill the gift requests.

“The fact that our regional health care provider, our county government, foundations, businesses, churches, and the SCC and WCU communities are coming together to help the children in our county is an excellent example of community collaboration and engagement at its finest, in my opinion,” Farmer said.

For more information about Christmas Connection, email christmasconnectionofjc@gmail.com or contact Chamberlin at 828-399-1216.

— Contributed information

Categories | The Reporter


Photos | WCU News Services

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