As the holidays draw near, many in our community are worried about giving their children the warm, happy holiday all children deserve, and their neighbors are equally concerned.
Local nonprofit organizations do what they can for families in need of assistance during the holidays. For one, the Saratoga County Economic Opportunity Council (EOC) provides Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners to low-income families. Meals are also offered by churches, community centers and food pantries throughout the county, staffed by hundreds of volunteers.
Many of those who volunteer are families with children, who want to pass on the tradition of kindness and social responsibility to the next generation. For example, the Franklin Community Center website currently features a heartwarming story about two young boys who each made a personal sacrifice to help others. This is a common story in towns and villages throughout the county.
In addition to organization-sponsored efforts, many individuals also sponsor children for the holidays, often purchasing gifts for an entire family. Even our school districts are getting involved.
Teachers, administrators and support staff donate what they can throughout the year to help families in need. At Ballston Spa High School, students are partnering with local churches to provide a complete Thanksgiving dinner to families in need. Recipients are identified through social service organizations and flyers are sent to families working with school counselors and homeless liaisons.
Dawn Howk, a counselor at Ballston Spa Middle and High School, said this year 21 families are receiving Thanksgiving baskets, which include a Price Chopper gift card for a turkey and other perishable items. Students from the middle school have collected donations from staff and students to assist an additional 36 families this year.
In another Saratoga County school district, kids in elementary through high school are working with local churches to gather donations throughout the year. Toys, winter clothes and holiday dinner provisions are distributed to local families in need. Tickets are distributed to families, identified through the school or other service agencies, who are invited to “shop” donated shelves of new toys organized by age group.
I know first-hand how getting kids of all ages involved in helping others, whether through school, church or a family tradition, helps build self-esteem and respect for others.
As a teenager and young adult living in Saratoga Springs, it seemed like my group of friends was always volunteering for something. We helped at the soup kitchen for Thanksgiving, worked with a local church to wrap and distribute gifts to families living in motels, among other small efforts throughout the year. It wasn’t a specific charity or cause that enticed us. Giving back to the community was just something we did, because we were happy to live here, and it was important. No one made us volunteer, although our parents did put in a fair amount of effort, driving us from place to place.
We never know how our actions will affect our own future. I remember my youth group helping to paint the basement of the new Shelters of Saratoga building before it opened. Many years later, that basement was my office, where I administered my first Community Development Grant Program and met my business partner. The lesson I learned was that we are all connected, and living some place nice is a direct result of residents helping to create a nice place to live.
In my time living in Saratoga County, I have seen the creation and growth of numerous service organizations: homeless shelters, food pantries, and counseling and advocacy groups. Sadly, I have also witnessed many incredible organizations lose funding and pass quietly into oblivion, leaving an empty space to be filled, hopefully, by concerned citizens who recognize a pressing need. The triumphs and tragedies of each town and village create our shared hometown identity – the culmination of all our efforts to help, and the times we have been fortunate enough to make a difference to someone else.
I believe that as Saratoga County residents, we are all drawn together by a common sense of place. For those who grew up here and those who have recently joined our community, we share a love of our towns, our schools, and the neighborhoods we identify so closely with our sense of self. Volunteering a bit of our time is like writing a love letter to the places we hold most dear. I may not know everyone in Schuylerville, the little rural town I call home, but I am grateful every day for the chance to live and raise my daughters in a community that cares about my family’s well-being.
This holiday season, as we gather our loved ones close and count our many blessings, let us consider how lucky we are to live in a county that strives to offer the best possible life to all its residents, all year long. For the countless families throughout Saratoga County that are struggling this holiday season, there is a happy ending. These days, stories like this remind us how lucky we truly are to live in a close-knit community that takes care of its own.
Michelle Read DeGarmo has been working in the human services field for 16 years. She currently works with Marvin & Company Community Revitalization, a local consulting firm that helps rural municipalities administer affordable housing programs.