For families who are already struggling, the holiday season bring a deeper level of stress and need.

We all know that Santa’s elves are up all night this time of year. But what happens when the holidays cause sleepless nights for already-stressed families? It’s a sinking feeling no family welcomes during the holiday giving season, but is unfortunately one that thousands of families in our region are experiencing right now as holiday needs mount.

To ensure we are providing the kind of assistance that is needed most, United Way surveyed our partner agencies last month. The organizations we talked to are working throughout the year with families who are struggling each month to make ends meet. Here’s what they told us.

WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST STRESSES FOR FAMILIES YOU SERVE?

The children and families our agencies are serving are already under stress all year long. The holiday season imposes an added layer of challenges:

  • Being able to afford the basics (food, heat, medicines, child care, housing) with the added pressure to prepare a special holiday meal and give gifts to the children.
  • Families are concerned about what the winter will bring in increased heating costs and transportation costs – reliability of transportation in winter to get to work and have child care.
  • Social pressure mounts – families want to give their children a happy holiday. In many cases the ability to purchase that is just not available; or, the family isn’t in the place to celebrate while, say, facing homelessness, unemployment, or other major stresses.
  • Those who work and are paid an hourly rate may experience less earning power when businesses shut down for specific holidays.
  • Families and children who have experienced trauma find the holidays to be difficult both financially as well as emotionally.
  • Programs that serve youth often find it challenging to collect adequate gifts that will be helpful to them, as most toy drives are focused on small children.

HOW ARE YOU HELPING FAMILIES IN YOUR COMMUNITIES THIS SEASON?

Many organizations are running toy drives, big and small, to help alleviate the stress of holiday shopping for families with children. More than 60% of agencies hold gift card drives to provide assistance to their families.

Why gift cards? Here’s what one organization, Families First in Portsmouth, NH had to say:

Our greatest need all year long, but especially during the holiday season are gift cards. Most do not enjoy giving gift cards as they aren’t seen as very personal gifts, so we run out. However, these gift cards are the best gift to our clients who have many different challenges and barriers facing them. Gift cards allow our staff the ability to care for each person as an “individual”.

Some can’t afford their over the counter medicine because they are already to the point of not getting enough food on the table, let alone care for the three kids who just came down with the flu; a drug store gift card becomes their relief. A mom finally comes in to meet with her counselor, and she is distraught because she doesn’t like asking people for help, but can’t afford to have Santa come this year; a gift card is given to her to Toys R Us so she can get those toys last minute without having the stigma of being “poor”. Every single one of our gift cards go to a person with a name and a story. They are extremely personal gifts.

According to the National Retail Federation, the average amount spent per person on Black Friday alone last year was $403. Roughly the same amount can prevent one family in financial crisis from experiencing homelessness.

Click here to find volunteer opportunities and other ways to help families in your community this holiday season.

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