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November 19, 2012

DSS Annual Children's Christmas Project is a Heartwarming Community Effort

GENEROUS COMMUNITY - Tables full of new toys are arranged by age group at the annual Children's Christmas Fund toy giveaway. The toys are distributed to needy families in Oswego County. The program is supported entirely by donations from the community.

MEXICO, NY - For almost three decades, employees at the Oswego County Department of Social Services have been helping families in need during the holiday season. The annual Children's Christmas Fund has grown from a toy giveaway initially aimed at foster children to include more than 1,600 children in 600 families last Christmas.

"I am extremely proud of our DSS staff and their commitment to this project," said Gregg Heffner, Commissioner of Social Services. "The Children's Christmas Fund first began by providing gifts to foster children, but now has expanded to provide gifts to any child who may otherwise receive little or nothing for Christmas. The project is supported entirely by community donations. No federal, state or county funds are used."

Staff members Deanne Myers, Carol Lee, Maria Downey and Marcia Birdsell are at the heart of the project.

For Myers, the Children's Fund is a family commitment. "There are many nights my daughters and I shop for the Children's Fund. They help pick out items children might enjoy for Christmas," she said. "I find giving my time very rewarding and my family is right there by my side. I like to think that what we do will make a difference for a child who will have that smile on their face on Christmas, or the parent who may be a little less stressed out over the holiday season because we were able to help them."

The committee credits DSS retiree Connie Day with doing "a ton of work" to get the program off the ground more than 20 years ago. Altogether about 15 to 20 staff members and their families work year-round to organize the project, searching for bargains and shopping throughout the year to make sure there are appropriate gifts for every child in need.

"The committee gives much of their own time each year to make this project happen," said Lee, a senior typist who has been involved in the program since 1989. "The staff members coordinate the number of toys with the numbers of kids in need to make sure we have enough for each age group. It is very rewarding to know that we are helping to make Christmas possible for families who otherwise might have to go without gifts for their children."

"Although this project consumes a lot of our personal time, I don't think twice about volunteering each year because it is extremely gratifying," said Birdsell. "The generosity of the community as we collect donations of money and toys makes me proud to be a resident of Oswego County. And I have spoken to so many parents that break down and cry with gratitude because they didn't know how they were going to provide toys for their children for Christmas. I can just picture the children on Christmas morning, finding the toys that the project provides under the Christmas tree. That is what makes the time commitment worthwhile."

With difficult economic times, the list of families has grown each year. DSS staff hold fundraisers throughout the year to support the children's Christmas project.

"Every year we think we won't have enough items for all the families to get something," said Myers. "Yet each year, we are totally amazed at how much comes to us from the community, workers here at DSS, and companies that donate either toys or monetarily. I'm in awe to see how generous people are to complete strangers, when all they know is that someone needs help."

The program would not be possible without the help and support of many businesses and organizations across Oswego County. They include SUNY Oswego staff and students, Nelson Law Firm, Oswego County Bar Association, Oswego County Republican Committee, Constellation Energy, Fulton Companies, Cayuga Community College staff and students, Novelis employees, and many others.

"Every toy that is given to a child is purchased by members in the community, including workers right here at DSS," said senior typist Maria Downey. "We are totally amazed how much comes to us from the community, workers here at DSS, and companies that donate either toys or monetarily."

Toys are distributed on a referral basis only. Families needing assistance may contact the Department of Social Services, phone 963-5000, or fill out an application form at the DSS office. Families are screened for eligibility requirements. The deadline to apply is Monday, Nov. 26. This year's toy distribution will be Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 15 and 16. Families will receive an appointment letter informing them of the time and location to pick out their toys.

"It gives you a really good feeling to be able to make Christmas a little brighter for so many of Oswego County's families, especially in this difficult economic climate," said Birdsell. "Regardless of the economic hardships people are confronted with, the community still stands by each other to provide a helping hand."

Monetary donations and new, unwrapped toys are needed. To arrange for delivery or pick up of toy donations, call Marcia Birdsell at 963-5396, Carol Lee at 963-5246, Deanne Myers at 963-5305 or Maria Downey at 963-5361.Checks should be made payable to United Way/Children's Fund and mailed to the Oswego County United Way, c/o of Doreen Clark,1 S. First St., Fulton, NY 13069.

At the heart of the DSS Children's Fund are committee co-chairs, from left, Deanne Myers, Marcia Birdsell, and Carol Lee. Maria Downey is absent from the photo. For almost 30 years, the DSS staff has organized a toy giveaway for needy families. More than 1,600 children received gifts last Christmas.

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