LONG BRANCH – The holidays are brighter for 700 children from needy families in Monmouth and Ocean counties, thanks to the work of Family & Children’s
Service (FCS) and scores of local residents, schools and businesses that generously supported the agency’s annual Operations Sleighbells gift program.
More than $80,000 in gift cards and cash donations was collected by the social services agency and shared with 350 families a few weeks before Christmas, giving families plenty of time to shop for the holidays. Each family received a minimum $50 grocery card and a $75 gift card for every child.
After a tough year of pandemic-related job loss, illness, and childcare challenges for many of the recipient families, the holiday gift cards were a welcomed relief.
“We couldn’t have done this without the help of Family & Children’s Service this year,” said Alice Dukes, a home health care aide and a mother of three with two grandchildren and a mom who lives with them. “My children don’t ask for a lot and I wanted to be able to give them some nice gifts for Christmas. With everything going on, the coronavirus, so many sick people, I still feel blessed.”
“Sharing joy and giving families peace of mind is what the holiday drive is all about,” said Anna Burian, interim CEO for Family & Children’s Service. “We are happy to give hope for the holidays as our social service agency has done for more than 100 years.”
The pandemic has presented unique challenges for FCS and other agencies, and they needed to find a safe way to continue to serve clients and needy families during the holidays.
“It is our belief that no one should feel forgotten during the holidays, especially children. We have been working to find the safest and most effective way to support our Operation Sleighbells families as we adapt to ever-changing circumstances due to COVID-19,” Burian said.
In years past, FCS fulfilled wishes by collecting hundreds of gifts and toys that were distributed to families with the help of volunteers. Last year, FCS was forced to ask donors to donate gift cards instead of gifts and decided to do the same for 2021.
This year’s response for gift cards was “tremendous” said FCS Operation Sleighbells coordinator Samantha White, noting that the community donated more than $68,000 in gift cards, $11,000 more than last year.
“FCS is thankful for the community’s generosity and for all the volunteers who pitched in to help make this year’s gift program a success.” Approximately 100 individuals and businesses including fitness centers, hair salons, grocers, dentist and doctors’ offices participated, along with a Girl Scout troop, hockey team and schools from across the region.
Among the donor businesses is the Coffee Corral in Red Bank. Owner Courtlyn Crosson invited her customers to make gift card and cash donations for Operation Sleighbells.
Crosson was happy to help. “Our customers look forward to participating in Operation Sleighbells every year. Their excitement and support are one of the most heartwarming ways for everyone at Coffee Coral to kick off the holiday season. It wouldn’t be the holidays around here without the giving tree.”
An area family chose the opening night of a movie premiere to bring attention to Operation Sleighbells and asked guests to make a donation. The Bradley’s of Rumson, whose daughters Catherine and Aubin starred in the Nickelodeon Christmas film “Loud House Christmas,” raised $2500 for FCS.
The Village School in Holmdel contributed $4000 to the gift drive. Students “adopted” a child in need, and in addition to donating gift cards and cash, students and their families’ collected hats and gloves.
Village School Principal Arthur Howard said, “2020 was difficult because we weren’t able to have the regular giving tree, but this year the students were excited to take part and they really like to help out. Their parents are generous too and give 100 percent to community projects like Operation Sleighbells.”
White said, “families are always so appreciative of our holiday gift giving program. It’s very special to be part of the joy they experience.”
Family & Children’s Service relies on participation and support from the community throughout the year, Burian said. “We are especially grateful for everyone who helped create holiday memories for our clients during these difficult times,” she added.
To learn more about Operation Sleighbells and other FCS programs and projects visit http://www.fcsmonmouth.org.