The hugs of parents and the joyful squeals and laughter of children during a special Christmas celebration at kidscommons meant a great deal to a Columbus high school senior.

Kaitlin Charles had once been in their situation. Charles, now 17, had experienced a Christmas when her parents couldn’t afford presents because of struggles but also the joy of receiving gifts due to the generosity of others.

That’s why the Columbus Signature Academy-New Tech High School student felt motivated to provide a traditional Christmas experience for some struggling families as her senior project.

“I want to give the joy my family received,” Charles said.

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Charles and fellow seniors Dakota Hodapp and Griffen Wheeler organized a Christmas celebration Saturday afternoon at Columbus’ children’s museum for five families — although one was unable to attend — who are clients of George Junior Republic. The organization, which once helped Charles’ family, is focused on helping at-risk youth become successful, well-adjusted adults capable of achieving a higher degree of citizenship.

The 90-minute event gave the children an opportunity to play and experience the museum’s wonders. Families munched on a variety of snacks. Baskets of food, cleaning supplies and toiletries were given to the families, plus gifts for the children so they would have some to open Christmas Day.

“I want them to know someone is there for them. They’re not alone in this,” Charles said.

Appreciated assistance

Charles’ family was going through a tough time last year. It had grown from four to seven with the adoption of three girls; but her father, Joe, was in the hospital, and her mother, Carol, was trying to make ends meet.“It was hectic. There was a lot of stress in the family,” Charles said.That atmosphere started to change when Hollie O’Connor, a case manager for George Junior, began working with the family in March 2014. Case managers try to provide structure to the family setting through their assistance.

“She lessened the stress. She made the home environment better to be in,” Charles said.

O’Connor helped the family in other ways, by giving them gas cards or buying groceries, school supplies, clothing and personal hygiene items, O’Connor and Charles said. In the process, they formed a friendship.

Charles said O’Connor was always willing to listen and talk.

“She made me feel like someone was there for me,” Charles said.

Charles always wanted to meet and chat, O’Connor said. Sometimes she’d pick up Charles from school; sometimes they’d grab lunch or go shopping.

“I talked with Kaitlin and gave her an outlet so she got away from home and talked about her needs and goals and therapy to help her work though everything going on,” O’Connor said.

Charles said she would like to become a social worker or therapist to help families and children. She’s applied to IUPUC and would be the first person in her family to go to college.

O’Connor and Charles kept in touch even after O’Connor’s help through George Junior Republic ended last December.

Charles said their relationship and O’Connor’s prior help made it easy for the students to turn to her for assistance with their senior project.

Strong support

Charles, Hodapp and Wheeler partnered in August. In their discussions about what type of project to do, they decided to work with people, specifically helping children and families.The students said they came up with the idea of providing a traditional Christmas experience because they knew Christmas can be a struggle for some families.Charles recalled several years when money was really tight for Christmas. One year their family was put in the Angel Tree program, in which people volunteer to buy gifts for families. Last year, someone from Mt. Healthy Elementary School put the family’s name on a Secret Santa list, and as a result each child received presents, Charles said.

The students also wanted to do more than just make a donation to a cause, which is why they settled on kidscommons for the event.

“This is nice. It makes it personal,” Wheeler said.

Charles said they turned to O’Connor for help in finding families to assist, hoping that would be possible through George Junior Republic.

“I said, ‘Absolutely,’” O’Connor said.

O’Connor came up with five families who had worked hard to achieve goals and family stability. From there, she and the students met regularly to determine what exactly they would do and how to get support for their project.

The students and O’Connor met with the families to learn about them and know more about the children, such as their ages, interests, special needs, allergies and clothing sizes.

Then they spread the word about their project with people they knew to see if they could get support. The response overwhelmed them. Within a day people replied with pledges of money or agreed to buy items, Charles said.

“It was unbelievable,” she said.

Assistance was more than just toys and food but also cleaning supplies, hygiene items and diapers, Hodapp said.

The students received $4,000 to $5,000 worth of donations for their project, O’Connor said.

A merry time

The families, students, project mentor and other volunteers packed the party room at kidscommons on Saturday. Baskets of food and household supplies and wrapped gifts for the children were stowed on a counter and available floor space. Two tables featured a spread of finger foods, snacks, desserts and drinks for the children and their parents.Families sat and relaxed at tables, munching on deli meats, cheeses, crackers, vegetables, cookies and pies. Some children ate hurriedly because of their eagerness to get out and play on the children’s museum’s exhibits. The Explora House, with its giant toilet and many nooks, proved to be one of the most popular.Shortly into the party, O’Connor reintroduced the students to the families and thanked the students for their work and the families for participating. The families responded by giving Charles, Hodapp and Wheeler a round of applause.

Brittany Stevenson was so moved by the help that she gave O’Connor a hug, tears flowing as she did. Charles, too, was the recipient of a thankful embrace.

“It’s been a tough year,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson and her husband, Robert Byrd, attended with their three boys, ages 7, 5 and 1. They have been receiving help from O’Connor and George Junior Republic since the spring. Byrd was out of the home for a while, and money has been so tight that a couple of times utilities were about to be disconnected, Stevenson said.

Terry and Kendra Douglas and their six children, ranging in age from 12 years to 8 months, were among the families to enjoy the festivities. Terry Douglas said they were surprised to receive the help but appreciative of the effort by the students.

“I think it’s awesome that people this age, as their senior project, are thinking of other people at Christmastime when money is hard and times are tough. They have big hearts to do this as their senior project,” he said.

Terry Douglas said he and his wife both work minimum-wage jobs, which makes providing for the children and themselves a challenge.

Last year they had no money for presents. The year before that they were assisted through an Angel Tree program. The presents and food given Saturday were a big help, he said.

“It’s going to make it a merry Christmas,” he said.

By the numbers

3: Columbus Signature Academy-New Tech High School students who organized a Christmas event for their senior project: Kaitlin Charles, Dakota Hodapp, Griffen Wheeler

4: Number of families able to attend Saturday’s event at kidscommons

5: Total number of families helped by the senior project

$4,000 to $5,000: Estimated value of donations given to the students for their project

A helping hand for families

Families received various forms of assistance from the students.

Food: Laundry basket filled with items to make a Christmas dinner, including a ham, boxed mashed potatoes, canned green beans, canned corn, macaroni and cheese, rolls, stuffing mix, brownie mix, cookies, Hershey’s kisses

Necessities: Household items including paper towels, cleaning supplies, hand towels, throw blankets, toiletries

Gifts: Wrapped presents for the families to take home so the children could have some to open on Christmas Day

About George Junior Republic

George Junior Republic, which is based nationally in Grove City, Pennsylvania, was founded by businessman William Reuben George in 1909. The name “Junior Republic” reflects George’s intention to assist at-risk youth by offering them the chance to join a small society where they could learn what it means to be a responsible citizen. Its Indiana operations are based in Gas City, near Marion in Grant County.

Source: gjr.org

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Kirk Johannesen is assistant managing editor of The Republic. He can be reached at johannesen@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5639.