October 11, 2012 10:44:38 AM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
No child should be without a gift to open on Christmas morning. No parent should have to look that child in the eyes and try to explain why Santa visits some houses but not others. Winter coats, gloves, shoes and socks should not be luxuries.
But for some families, the advent of cooler weather and the holiday season places an extra strain on wallets already stretched too thin. Recognizing this hardship, the Columbus Police Department will begin taking applications Saturday for the annual CPD toy drive, with a twist this year: Instead of wants, they're focusing on needs.
Children's names, ages and sizes can be submitted at the Columbus Municipal Complex from 8 a.m. to noon Oct. 13 and Oct. 20. Applicants must show a driver's license, and they should bring Social Security cards for all children in the household.
Four neighborhood watch group volunteers -- representing north and east Columbus, Southside and the Sandfield community -- will sort applications, selecting 50 from each area.
The police department will use CharityTracker to streamline local resources and avoid duplication of services.
CharityTracker, an online web application, provides a detailed report of applicants' assistance history through a national database commonly used by nonprofit organizations, faith-based charities, churches and governmental agencies.
As need continues to outpace resources, Capt. Fred Shelton says it is critical to be frugal, channeling aid to those who need it most.
Last year, more than 200 children received bicycles and toys, and the department will take donations of these items again this year. But they are also asking for new or lightly-used children's clothing.
Though the department uses seed money from its annual charity ball, they are soliciting additional funds to fulfill requests not met by donations.
"Why give a bunch of toys if they need coats or food?" Shelton explains. "There will be a toy or two in there, but this year, it's more about taking care of the family as a whole."
A need to serve
Southside resident Annie Berry is one of the volunteers sorting applications. During her 37-year career as an eligibility counselor for the Mississippi Department of Human Resources, she saw the difference a helping hand could make in a family's life.
Though she is now retired, she still feels the call to help the less fortunate, particularly children and the elderly.
"I'm always a part of anything where there's a need to serve," Berry says. "I've been that child; I'm that senior citizen now. It's gratifying to have the time and willingness to help somebody."
Many are hesitant to ask for help, but Shelton says they shouldn't be embarrassed. If they prefer not to submit their applications in person, they can send a note via mail or email.
"At the end of the day, it's not about your pride," Shelton says. "It's about helping the children."
A call for help
Shqunna Brewer, 21, began receiving Christmas assistance from the police department in 2009, when her mother was incarcerated.
At the time, she was a senior at Columbus High School, struggling to earn her diploma and care for her nine-year-old brother, Nelshon Brewer.
She didn't want to ask for help, but she also didn't want her brother to go without at least something for Christmas.
When he received a shiny, new bicycle from the police department, she cried.
She also made sure he understood that the bike was purchased by a stranger who cared enough about his happiness to buy something she could not have afforded.
He loves that bicycle, she says. She refuses to take credit for someone else's generosity.
She also wanted to use it as a teachable moment: Not everyone is mean, she tells him. It's good to ask for help -- and it's good to pay it forward.
Though she didn't graduate with her class, she is proud of her diploma, even if she did earn it a few months late.
She has a job at Pizza Hut now, and she has just moved into a better neighborhood where she can make a new life for herself, her brother and her one-year-old son, Ja'Koby Cooper.
Nelshon has struggled with anger issues since his mother's incarceration, and she tries to talk him through them. Since their move, he has a new crowd of friends and seems to be walking a straighter path.
She, too, has a brighter outlook, due in no small part to the gifts she received from the police department: hope and renewed faith.
"Being a teenager was kind of hard, but raising my brother and son on my own is even harder," she says softly. "But if you put your mind to it, anything is possible. God will help you if you pray. There is help in Columbus. People think it's a bad place, but I really love my hometown."
For more information about the Christmas toy drive, please visit the Columbus Police Department at 1501 Main Street, call 662-364-1850 or email CPD Public Information Officer Glenda Buckhalter at [email protected]
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.