Foster care program partners with area organizations for Christmas gift drive

WINCHESTER – Area foster care program Embrace is collecting board games for foster children and teenagers in its second annual Christmas donation drive.

This year’s drive is centered on board games, an idea thought up by foster parent recruitment coordinator Katharine McLeod.

“The kind of broader idea is that we’re giving the gift of quality time to our families,” McLeod said. “So, turn off the TV, put down the cell phones and have something that brings families together around the table to make memories, and interact with each other, and laugh and have a good time, really together, looking at each other.”

Embrace partnered with the Top Virginia and Shenandoah County Chambers of Commerce, the Warren County Community Center, and Selah Theater to organize this year’s drive. Each organization has set up collection areas for donors to drop off gifts.

The program’s Winchester office serves Frederick, Warren, Clarke and Shenandoah counties, or anywhere within an hour of the office at 817 Cedar Creek Grade.

McLeod made the point that this drive is intended to help foster families, who have already poured money into raising additional children.

“When I started, and we started talking about a Christmas drive, I thought, ‘Well, aren’t the foster parents going to get the kids presents?'” McLeod said. “But then it was explained to me and I kind of realized that, for a family that budgets for Christmas to be mom, dad and two kids all year, and then they accept two or three foster children — maybe a couple of weeks even before Christmas — that present budget suddenly gets stretched real thin.”

Parents want to provide the same number of presents and the same quality of presents to all their children, McLeod said, and this drive helps them do so.

The drive also focuses on new rather than used gifts, because, as McLeod noted, “our kids know what their classmates are getting … they see it, they’re hip.”

Last year, Embrace partnered with Winchester’s Hideaway Cafe to put on an “angel tree” donation event, in which the recipient children asked for specific gifts and Embrace handed out the specific requests to donors, but anonymizing the child’s identity in the sake of privacy.

An example donor slip might say “a male child of such-and-such age would like (this gift),” McLeod said.

“One kid — and I tried to put in as many quotations as I could, to sort of show the individual character of our kids, because they’re so funny and unique — we had one teenager, who all he wanted was McDonald’s,” McLeod said. “The group that we partnered with last year, they did such a really outstanding job … they went to a manager of a local McDonald’s and said, ‘This kid really wants McDonald’s.”

In the end, that kid woke up to a manila envelope under the Christmas tree, stuffed with coupons for free items at McDonald’s.

Other highlights from last year include a punching bag donated by Dick’s Sporting Goods and a $300 pair of Timberland boots donated by a local man.

“The person who got the ornament was like, ‘These are $300.’ And Victoria, who owned the (Hideaway) Cafe, knew the person who had the tag and said, ‘You can afford it, go get them.’ And, you know, he got the shoes,” McLeod said.

Embrace is a for-profit foster care program, but McLeod said that’s because of the parent company’s corporate status, and in practice it’s a bit of a misnomer.

“What I don’t like about it is that it makes it sound like we’re in some way profiting off the kids — it makes it sound much more exploitative than it is, but it’s just like we happen to be for-profit,” McLeod said.

The for-profit classification rules out hosting profit-sharing events with local businesses, but Embrace manages to work with small companies in other ways.

Area pizza companies have agreed to attach foster care flyers to their delivery boxes, and several restaurants and draft houses allow McLeod to set up a booth on their premises to chat with customers about the Embrace program.

“A lot of my work is getting people to talk about foster care,” McLeod said. “I try to talk to individuals, and especially individuals in business about using their personal network and using their business microphone to get that message out to people. That is where our business community has been so extraordinarily generous in sharing their time.”

McLeod asks anyone interested in becoming a foster parent or learning more about the program to contact her at Katharine.McLeod@embraceTFC.com or (540) 376-3968.