OPINION: Volunteering for the United Way of Meriden and Wallingford

OPINION: Volunteering for the United Way of Meriden and Wallingford

By Stephen Knight

I’m sure you are as sick of hearing about Covid-19 as I am, so I promise I won’t prattle on about how much pain it’s brought to so many of our neighbors. You already know that. But I do want to discuss some of the work done by one organization for which I volunteer: the United Way of Meriden and Wallingford.

Of course, we have all heard of the United Way. I’m proud to say that I’ve known about it since I was in second grade, as my father was the volunteer chairman that year in my home town of Waterbury. So when I was asked to become a volunteer for our United Way, of course I said yes.

Our United Way is in the midst of their annual campaign, which has been severely hampered by the restrictions required to keep the virus from spreading. Nevertheless, the need is obviously greater than ever. If you have been fortunate not to have been furloughed from your job this year, or if you can possibly see your way clear, I ask that you donate to that campaign. It’s easy to do. Just go on their website (unitedwaymw.org) and click on the DONATE button.

The remainder of this column is more specific. At this time of year, the United Way of Meriden and Wallingford (UWMW) has three very special programs aimed at helping as many people as possible to enjoy the holiday season. There is a Thanksgiving Food Basket Drive that supplies people in need with food for their Thanksgiving Day meal. And if you go to the Meriden Mall, you will find three Giving Trees where you can pick an ornament that represents a gift to be purchased for someone whose Christmas holiday will most likely not include presents due to financial hardship.

But the one I wish to highlight is one they call Adopt-A-Family: The Christmas season is the time when families customarily exchange gifts, but there are many families without the financial ability to do so, and that becomes especially disappointing for the children in these families and heartbreaking for their parents. The UWMW works to find people or organizations willing to “adopt” a family and purchase gifts for each member. The partner agencies vet and decide on their client’s eligibility (i.e., which families have the biggest need) and ask the parents to fill out gift lists for each member of the family, giving additional information about gender, age and clothing or shoe sizes. A volunteer donor shops for that family and brings the gifts to the United Way for distribution.

This year, the goal is to find 200 donors. Two hundred companies, organizations and individuals that are willing to share their holiday with a family that is facing the holiday season without the resources to participate in the joy of the season that everyone else will.

My wife Cathy and I have participated for several years in the past. You cannot believe how much more “spirit of the season” that we were filled with when we went shopping for our “family.” One year we were at Kohl’s purchasing clothes for two youngsters. We were chatting away to each other about colors and sizes — apparently loud enough for another customer to hear. She inquired about what we were doing, and when we explained that it was for a family we didn’t know, she handed us $20 and said “I want to help.” This is the kind of spirit and generosity that this program brings out in anyone who gets involved.

The most poignant moments were when we first read the lists of gifts that people requested. It was very rarely toys for the kids. No, the parents were asking for basic things: clothes for the kids, a winter jacket for mom or dad. Basic items of clothing that they would all need for winter. There were some small gifts for the kids that were sometimes requested, but nothing at all elaborate or expensive. We were so touched by the nature of the requests that we tried to supplement the lists with extra gifts for the children. Shopping for these most basic of items truly gave us a sense of how hard some people have it in our community.

Donors do not have the opportunity to actually meet their “adopted” family, for obvious privacy reasons. However, I have been told by SCOW staff, for instance, that the reaction that people have when they are handed their bag of gifts is overwhelming joy mixed with thanks and even some relief that their holiday will indeed be a wonderful one.

I will end with this: if you want to feel the spirit of the holiday season like never before, volunteer for the United Way’s Adopt-A-Family program. Your generosity is exactly what is needed more than ever in this awful year of 2020.

Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford town councilor.

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