By Colleen Sparks
The COVID-19 pandemic is generating anxiety as people struggle to figure out how they will put food on the table, buy gifts and orchestrate holiday gatherings amid the economic strain and health concerns.
Many residents in North Central and around the country have suffered job losses or a decrease in their work hours while some are recovering after contracting Coronavirus or mourning a loved one who died as a result of the illness that has gripped the world. While Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year’s Day are often holidays where large groups of friends and family members gather in homes to celebrate, exchange gifts and share food, COVID-19 has made it more challenging. Those at high risk of contracting Coronavirus might feel isolated this holiday season if their loved ones are keeping their physical distance in order to try to protect their health.
Local non-profit organizations say they are hearing from many people that they are concerned about how they can afford to pay their mortgages or rent, as well as buy clothes and other basic necessities. These groups are doing all they can to try to help residents stay afloat and still generate some holiday magic.
“I get calls, every day now three or four calls a day probably at least, from people that are needing help with their rent,” said Kathy Rood, manager of Jewish Social Services for Jewish Family & Children’s Service. “It’s really scary. You see people with families that can’t even pay their rent. They’re not going to be able to provide for the holidays. Most of the people I have heard from have never had to ask for help before.”
Jewish Family & Children’s Service organizes a program where businesses, families and religious organizations sponsor families for the winter holidays. Sponsors buy items on wish lists, including clothes, bicycles, shoes and other items.
Rood said the organization also is concerned about senior citizens who do not have many family members or friends nearby. Each senior Jewish Family & Children’s Service serves will receive gift bags with grocery store gift cards, quilts, puzzles, calendars, candy and/or other presents this holiday season.
When the pandemic started, seniors in the community often lost their access to in-person activities and social gatherings as they had to be canceled. Now Jewish Family & Children’s Service’s Center for Senior Enrichment is providing more virtual/online programs. Weekly chair yoga classes, Phoenix Art Museum docents’ talks and weekly Shabbat programs are some of the diverse online offerings it provides. The activities are open to seniors of all faiths and delivered through Zoom. To see a schedule of the programs, visit facebook.com/JFCSCSE.
Senior Pastor Kimberly Scott with Cross Roads United Methodist Church said she and her congregation have heard from many people who are struggling lately, including recent college graduates who are having trouble finding suitable employers.
“The biggest trouble right now is with our elderly population, people who just can’t get out, they can’t get out to see their friends, their families,” Scott said.
She said she hoped this month that the church would be able to safely hold services in-person again, perhaps in a drive-thru-style format. Scott said church members have been calling elderly residents to check on them and the congregation might have a blue light ceremony to honor loved ones who died this year.
Rhonda Baldwin, manager of social services for Phoenix Children’s Hospital, said she and her colleagues have noticed more families of patients struggling.
“We started noticing right away that families had been laid off from their jobs or placed on furlough or had pay cuts,” Baldwin said. “Their bills were still coming in.”
She said many families the hospital works with are concerned about how they will pay their mortgage or rent.
“When you’re in that kind of financial stress, you’re very concerned about trying to have a typical holiday,” Baldwin said. “They say, ‘Usually I’m the one donating to families in need and now I’m that person in need.’”
Some families are feeling financial strain from having to pay high medical bills for their sick children and exhausting all their paid time off from work. Phoenix Children’s Hospital Foundation’s Hardship Fund helps families offset many of the costs related to hospital visits, including food, gas, lodging and transportation. A toy drive is held to provide children who are patients at the hospital with presents around the holidays. Also, a donor ensures children receive gifts through the Bill Holt Pediatric HIV Clinic at Phoenix Children’s Hospital.
You can find ways to help families by visiting phoenixchildrensfoundation.org/ways-to-give.
Arizona Helping Hands, a non-profit organization that provides essential items for children in foster care, is concerned about how the pandemic will impact donations from people in the community, said Dan Shufelt, president and CEO of the organization. The organization has provided more than 16,000 children with twin beds or cribs over the last seven years and it also provides gifts to group homes to give children for their birthdays. Arizona Helping Hands typically puts boxes at businesses so employees can fill them with toys for children in foster care but many offices have been closed in recent months.
Arizona Helping Hands also relies heavily on volunteers, which has been an issue this year due to the pandemic. You can make a financial donation to the organization or purchase items on an Amazon wish list for foster children, with links provided at azhelpinghands.org.
Generation Justice, a North Central non-profit organization, is trying to determine how to bring families together for the holidays “in the safest possible ways,” said Darcy Olsen, founder and CEO. This organization advocates for foster care children and it has seen more youths in need of finding steady, permanent homes since the pandemic started.
“For most of these kids, their Christmas wish is to have a family,” Olsen said. “If you can open up a bed it’s pretty simple to get licensed and it will be one of the best decisions you’ve ever made.”
She has fostered 10 children altogether and four of them she adopted. Single foster parents can be stressed trying to juggle work while caring for their foster children, who might still be taking school classes online due to the pandemic.
Olsen urges people to help other families as much they can, including contributing gift cards to Child Crisis Arizona, which aims to offer youths in the state a safe environment, free from abuse and neglect.
To learn more about Generation Justice, visit genjustice.org.
Free Arts for Abused Children of Arizona also wants to make the holiday season brighter for children, who are facing challenges including a lack of connection during the pandemic, said Marisa Arellano, programs manager for the organization. The organization’s mission is to use the healing powers of the arts to assist abused and homeless children in building resiliency and learning to trust and heal.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began “there was a lot of need for connection” among the children Free Arts serves as many of them were forced to stay home with schools closed. The organization sent to-go art kits to group homes and other facilities with the tools they would need to create artwork. It also ran a summer camp virtually, where kids and teens learned to dance, perform music and engage in visual arts. Free Arts will provide boxes with art projects and activities children and teens can do starting the week before Thanksgiving and again right before Christmas.
Free Arts for Abused Children can always use donations of art supplies and financial contributions to help youths. You can learn how to give by visiting freeartsaz.org/you-can-help.