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Northland charities help put the ‘merry’ into Christmas

The countdown is on for the holidays as people scurry to buy and wrap presents, bake treats and connect with loved ones.

But for those who struggle even to buy groceries, never mind gifts, the season isn’t full of festive fun.

Some may not have loved ones to spend time with, or even a home to call their own. For them, the holiday season brings feelings of loneliness.

But the Northland is filled with a number of organizations – and generous people who work with them – that reach out to those people in hopes of making the season a little brighter.

Based in Gladstone, the Assistance League of Kansas City is an all-volunteer organization. Kansas City is one of 124 chapters of the national organization, which began in 1923 in California. Locally, the chapter offers 10-community-based programs.

The local chapter has two auxiliaries: Heartland for adults and Assisteens for youth in seventh through 12 grades. Combined, about 350 active volunteers provide more than 55,000 hours helping more than 16,000 children and adults year round.

Programs include a wide spectrum of assistance, from Assault Survivor Kits for victims of sexual assault to Operation School Bell that provides new clothing for students. Its ReSALE Thrift Shop provides 75 percent of the revenues to fund the Assistance League’s programs.

While the Assistance League works year round to make a difference in people’s lives, it focuses on several Christmas-related activities with a specific goal.

“Our goal is to see that each deserving person or family has ample food and that each child has gifts to open on Christmas morning,” said Becky Clark, assistant treasurer and longtime volunteer. Clark joined the organization while working as a music teacher in the North Kansas City School District.

“When I was still teaching I got tired of writing checks and I wanted to get actively involved in helping people,” she said. 

Today, Clark is chairwoman of one the Assistance League’s holiday projects: its annual poinsettia sale that supports its Operation Child in Need, a program providing supplies for students and their families. Sales started in September and the group sold 939 of the festive holiday plants.

“I personally moved, organized and delivered 686,” said Clark with a laugh.

The Assistance League also works with Synergy to provide gifts for children and adults, and through its Senior Outreach Service sponsors holiday parties at senior care facilities.

Imagine a store that’s only open for three days a year but provides food gifts to those who need it most. That’s the purpose of The Northland Christmas Store, a non-profit organization in Clay County.

Bill Turnage, chairman of the project, says the organization serves individual families and children by providing toys, food and essentials.

Those who shop at the store must go through an application process that is based upon income and residency. The store is open the first week of December.

The Northland Christmas Store was founded in 1988 by a Rotary Club in North Kansas City and the Elks Lodge in Gladstone. Today, a 24-member board of directors governs the all-volunteer organization. Volunteers work throughout the year to prepare for the three-day store, which operates out of a local church, revealed annually to those who qualify to shop there.

About 150 volunteers run the store that is spread throughout the church building. Items are acquired through donations and food drives.

This year, 540 families, including 830 children, came through the Northland Christmas Store.

“Then we have 248 homebound people we take things to,” Turnage said. “We connect with local high school students who help distribute to them, and they have a great time doing that.”

Turnage said applications were up 18 percent over last year.

“I think primarily it is because we are getting better at getting the word out,” he said.

“Just watching our volunteers and the people going through the store is so meaningful. Many of the people may not have made the best decisions in their lives, but this is good for all of us.”

Synergy Services provides a continuum of care for victims of domestic violence, runaways and homeless teens and young adults. Staff and volunteers work together to make the holidays special through a number of activities.

Northside Christian Church has adopted all 75 of the youth currently housed/involved in Synergy’s youth programs. The church provides Christmas packages for each that include a cozy blanket, scarves, gloves and a gift card to a local restaurant. Other Northland churches provide meals, crafts and holiday financial support so that Synergy can purchase gifts for the women and children it assists.

The Youth Campus has also partnered with multiple individual donors to create a store for youth to shop for a gift for their loved ones at no cost. The areas are decked out to capture the holiday spirit.

“We are so grateful to everyone in the community who helps us ensure clients across all our programs get to experience the hope and joy of the holidays,” said Robin Winner, Synergy’s executive director.

“Youth in our transitional living program did a service learning where they put together care packages for people who serve in the armed forces and are deployed overseas,” Winner said.

At its SafeHaven shelter, Synergy provides gifts for the 40 women and children residing in the Women’s Center and Children’s Center. In addition, Synergy provides gifts and food boxes to families who have recently left the shelter and are still receiving aftercare services. Winner said Synergy will be able to help about 100 people.

Volunteers will be at the shelter on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning to provide meals for residents.

“It warms our hearts to be able to share holiday cheer with people who have experienced so much adversity, and to boost their spirits as they begin a new chapter in their life,” Winner said.