Bringing Christmas cheer to families (with a little help from Facebook)

A local group connects those in need with gift-givers via social media

For Tisha Wade, 53, of Rochester, 2014 was a challenging year.

One of her four children was diagnosed with cancer at age 18. The cancer traveled from her leg up through her bloodstream to her lung. The family missed Christmas that year, instead waiting in the Intensive Care Unit to hear news about her future.

Today, Wade’s daughter is 22. She lost her left leg to cancer and gets around in a wheelchair. One of her other children, a 16-year-old son, has autism. Wade supports her children while her husband, who has diabetes, goes to work.

Zane, then 16 months, received clothes, books and toys, and this stuffed sheep, which he loved, his mom Hannah Silk of Somersworth said. “It’s amazing to have been able to see the look on my son’s face last year when he was experiencing his first Christmas.” Courtesy photo

Christmas presents would normally be out of reach for the family if it weren’t for the all-volunteer Facebook group, “Helping Seacoast Families for Christmas.” Wade said she found the group through a quick search on Facebook, desperate to ensure a happy holiday for her family.

“I saw Helping Seacoast Families and I was like, ‘I wonder if this helps people because I definitely need help.’ I talked to Iris (Litterio) and she explained to me that the only thing you need to do is post pictures of the kids opening gifts,” she said.

Since then, Wade has applied for Christmas help each season and is thankful that her children can open gifts they’ve asked for.

“This is one of the nicest things anyone can do for families,” she said.

Starting from scratch

Helping Seacoast Families started with no income requirements, no staff, and no set agenda — just a Facebook group page. In October 2015, Tiffani Nelson reached out to moms in another Facebook group to ask if anyone would be interested in starting a Christmas charity. Three of the original five moms who supported the idea are still on board.

Beginning in October, they work hard to solicit families in need, encourage area families to “adopt” children, and then match the two, all via Facebook. Once the adoptive families buy presents, Nelson, Litterio, and administrators Nicole Dionne and Katherine Cauley collect, wrap and deliver gifts.

Nelson of Portsmouth has three daughters ages 9, 8 and 5. She started Helping Seacoast Families after experiencing homelessness. In 2014, she and her then-husband traveled to New Hampshire from Florida to stay with friends. The friends got evicted, leaving Nelson and her family homeless. They moved to Cross Roads House emergency shelter in Portsmouth that winter. For the first time, Nelson was unable to provide Christmas gifts for her family.

“I stumbled upon a group that was out of Manchester. The woman who adopted my girls was amazing and we still stay semi-in touch today,” she said. “The following year I decided to give back to my community and start a similar group that helps the Seacoast since we didn’t have anything like that here.”

Today, Nelson lives in public housing with her daughters and continues to receive help from the group as she makes Christmas presents a reality for others. She works at Aroma Joe’s and attends nursing school at Great Bay Community College.

“Helping people and making them smile is a huge part of my purpose,” she said.

Last year alone the group found donors (or “adopters”) for 509 children, serving more than 200 area families, said Litterio, of Dover, a former childcare provider with a five-year-old daughter. Each year, coordinating donations has become smoother as the administrators continue to hone their process.

“We do a video chat before the season starts to make our plan and adjustments for the upcoming season,” she said. “Social media has been a wonderful tool for us to help families in need and recruit people who want to help and are just looking for a way how.”

Filling the gaps

Although New Hampshire is the “least impoverished state” according to a U.S. Census Report and boasts one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, families in the area continue to struggle. The cost of housing in the group’s catchment area — which includes cities and towns in Strafford and Rockingham counties — are among the highest in the state. And while social services organizations can help strained families with basic needs like food and utilities, they do not typically provide extras like Christmas gifts.

Organizations such as The Salvation Army or Toys for Tots program accept and deliver gift donations, but do not ask families what their children specifically want for Christmas.

The Helping Seacoast Families for Christmas group asks parents for clothing and shoe sizes and for specific toy requests. To receive them families do not need to furnish any paperwork when they apply. They do, however, need to agree not to receive gifts from any other local Facebook charity to ensure as many kids as possible receive presents. The main requirement: Post a photo your adopter can see that shows your child opening his or her gift at Christmas.

William, son of Heather Arsenault of Seabrook, benefitted from the generosity of the Helping Seacoast Families for Christmas Facebook group. Courtesy photo.

“We use the honor system. We trust that the family applying is absolutely in need,” Litterio said. “Through the years we’ve gotten to know some of their stories, and they have become family to us.”

Of course, sometimes families are caught “double dipping,” or accepting gifts from other local Facebook charities, which Helping Seacoast Families discourages. There is a “Naughty and Nice” list for families who don’t comply with the rules, which are pinned at the very top of the group page. Litterio said she and the other administrators are more concerned about children getting left out rather than families taking advantage of the program.

  • To guarantee an entire family of kids receives gifts, the group only “releases” five families at a time through a random generator.
  • It is only until each family member is adopted that Seacoast Families posts the wish lists of additional children still waiting to be adopted.
  • Adopters can then choose which child or children they want to buy for based upon the information Seacoast Families provides in the posts.
  • Gift-givers can also choose to remain anonymous and rely on an administrator to communicate with the family and deliver the gifts. Or, if they prefer to foster a personal relationship with a family, they can discuss gift ideas and make deliveries in person.
  • This year, the administrators are also requesting that all gifts be donated unwrapped so that recipients can see them before children open them. (Adopters are welcome to donate wrapping paper, however.)

“Our biggest fear is that families with multiple kids will have four adopted kids and one not. What I end up doing the whole season is letting people know there are two kids left and then we can add more,” she said. “Older children are often considered not as fun to shop for, so I’ll let people know that someone can take the 12-year-old and we can move on…which speeds up the momentum.”

Last year, the group set out with a goal to bring Christmas to 400 kids, which it quickly exceeded. Adopters want to help, and social media has given them a tool to quickly find a way in which they can make a difference, Litterio said. Many families report including their own children in the adoption and gift-giving process, creating “a big circle of goodness and giving,” she said.

Getting involved

Delaney Deane of Barrington, who has two children ages 7 and 2, got involved with Helping Seacoast Families last year. She first reached out to ask if the group needed help wrapping gifts, but instead ended up helping the administrators moderate the site. She personally adopted two families and then involved her colleagues at Keller Williams Coastal Realty in Portsmouth, who collectively adopted 15 families.

“It’s right in front of your face; we are helping people who live in our own backyards,” Deane said. “When you look at the page, you see the requests right at the beginning. They make it easy,” she said.

Deane said she kept thinking, “If people can’t buy gifts, where do they put the gifts when they get them?” So she posted in the group, asking if anyone needed a Christmas tree, and 45 people responded. Last year, she was able to supply 30 trees and decorations to families. She delivered the trees with the help of her seven-year-old son.

“My son learned not to take a Christmas tree for granted. He didn’t understand why we were doing this, so we had that conversation that sometimes you have to pick feeding kids over getting a Christmas tree,” Deane said. “My son said that Santa would never forget anybody, so delivering the Christmas trees was easier. It let him see that not everyone is as fortunate as he is.”

Looking beyond December

Suzanne Burnett’s daughter Savannah, of Kittery, Maine, with one of her favorite gifts. Courtesy photo.

Because families have special events in their lives at times other than December, Helping Seacoast Families administrators are looking for ways in which they can make a difference in children’s lives year-round.

Throughout the year, some adopters have asked how they can help the families they’ve met at Christmastime. Other families have asked how they can donate items that are used but are in good condition. Because Helping Seacoast Families has no storage space, administrators wrestle with storing items and managing off-cycle donations. For this reason, the organization is looking to become a 501(c)(3) charity so it can formally fundraise. One of the first items on its wish list? Securing a space for storage.

“Each admin’s house is ‘Santa’s Workshop.’ Our living rooms have pathways of presents. I’d like to find a place to store all of this stuff and have birthday parties,” Litterio said.

Nelson and Litterio are working with the Small Business Administration to apply for 501(c)(3) status so they can apply for grants that will allow them to grow to supply birthday presents and host parties, as well as deliver back-to-school outfits to deserving Seacoast children.

“There will always be a need for fun in childhood. There are so many wonderful organizations out there that are overwhelmed with just trying to provide basic needs. We want to be able to provide the fun part of childhood,” Litterio said. “Children should be able to look forward to waking up on Christmas morning and parents should be able to look forward to their children waking up on Christmas morning.”

For recipients like Mandy Ebare, 35, of Farmington, Helping Seacoast Families relieves the stress of providing Christmas gifts.

The parents of six children, ages 17, 16, 14, 11, 8, and 4, Ebare and her husband have struggled with paying the bills, medical issues, and keeping a roof over their heads for the past few years.

“This had made my kids’ Christmases. If it weren’t for this group, we wouldn’t have had one,” she said.

For more information, or to donate, go to Facebook and search for “Helping Seacoast Families for Christmas.”

Krysten Godfrey Maddocks has worked as a journalist and in marketing roles throughout the Granite State. She now regularly writes for New-England based higher education, business, and technology organizations. She has enjoyed calling the Seacoast her home for more than 25 years.

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