Something so simple as a gift to unwrap can mean so much to a child going through the rollercoaster of emotions that come with being placed in foster care. Rayonier works with Family Support Services of North Florida to ensure every child in their care in Nassau County, FL, receives 3 Christmas wishes.
When Lisa Rozier parked in front of a humble home in Nassau County, Florida, she expected the shouts of joy from the children—but the father’s tears caught her by surprise.
“I told him who I was and that I had gifts for the children. He started crying and he hugged me,” says Lisa, the Education and Community Specialist for Family Support Services of North Florida, Inc. (FSS) in Nassau.
“He said, ‘I need you to come in the house.’ So I walked over to the front door, and I could see. It was just a few days before Christmas, and he had nothing – he had no presents under the tree,” Lisa recalls. “He hugged me again, and it was all I could do not to cry.”
The big impact of a small gift
Something so simple as a Christmas present to unwrap can mean so much to a child going through the rollercoaster of emotions that come with being placed in foster care. However, the families who take them in are often overwhelmed already with meeting their basic needs. That’s where the Be An Angel program comes in.
FSS, the nonprofit that manages foster care in Nassau and Duval Counties, created Be An Angel to purchase gifts for the children with the help of community partners. Case workers, caregivers and the children, themselves, create a massive Christmas list featuring three wishes for each child, and then FSS seeks individuals and businesses to grant the wishes.
“A lot of kids come into care right before the holidays, which is the most emotional and stressful time,” explains Kristy Slattery, an FSS Family Support Counselor. She says receiving Christmas gifts is a way to give children some sense of normalcy and a sense that they are loved.
“I think that’s the most important thing. They do need things, they’re worthy of those gifts. They’re great kids.”
Care from infancy to adulthood
Children are placed under FSS care at any time from birth to age 23 if they’re found to be in an abusive home or experiencing some form of neglect. FSS’s goal is to help their biological parents get on the right track so the children can return to the home. If they cannot, they assist in moving the children from temporary foster care to permanent adoption. When they are first placed into care, the children may live with a grandma or an aunt, or they may live in a foster family home or group home. Often, they have only enough time to grab a trash bag full of their belongings, so they go into care with very little to call their own.
“Sometimes some of their wishes are something as simple as a new pair of shoes or a bike that they really want,” Kristy says. “They want to fit in and be like the children around them. So if we’re able to provide that gift to them, it means the world to them.”
A partner in granting 100s of Christmas wishes
Gathering hundreds of gifts for the children was no easy task for FSS in the early years of Be An Angel. That changed in Nassau County in 2015, when Rayonier committed to grant every wish in the county. Our employees sign up to buy the gifts and bring them to the office wrapped with the children’s names on them. Then Jacksonville-based Read’s Moving Company picks up the hundreds of gifts and delivers them to FSS in giant boxes divided by case worker, taking some of the pressure off FSS to work their own small “Christmas miracle” for the children. FSS hopes to find similar partnerships in Duval County to ensure all children in its care receive gifts.
Bob Miller, President and CEO of FSS, says having a partner to fulfill wishes for Be An Angel has had a “mammoth impact” on FSS.
“It’s one thing to have the support of corporate leaders, but to see all the employees getting involved in it, to see their faces as they load that gigantic mound of presents into the truck, that’s really what the Christmas spirit is all about,” he says.
“No child should grow up in foster care”
Miller, who grew up in foster care himself, took the helm at FSS as a way to give back and work for the best possible outcomes for some of Northeast Florida’s most vulnerable children.
“Family Support Services really believes that no child should grow up in foster care,” he says, “so our number one goal is to provide a loving home for children and real permanency.”
But while the children are in temporary foster care, it’s clear the FSS team cares deeply about helping to bring them some joy through simple things like Christmas gifts.
Loading the truck
Each year, Rayonier hosts a Load the Truck party, inviting FSS employees to celebrate that all wishes have been granted and to watch as hundreds of presents are taken out of the Rayonier building and loaded into a large box truck. At this year’s party, one counselor was visibly moved when she spotted a large gift with one of her children’s names on it.
“That’s the guitar she wanted so badly,” she said, her eyes following the gift as it was loaded onto a cart. “That will be so good for her, both as a gift, and as something therapeutic she can do for herself.”
And Kristy says she was touched when a Rayonier employee reached out in advance to find out the hair color of the girl who requested a baby doll for Christmas. The employee wanted to get a doll with matching hair.
“She is this really cute little 3-year-old with blond, curly hair. I know that, but the individual at Rayonier who was buying her gifts did not know that,” Kristy says. “That was so heartfelt to me and so, just, personal. To know that they took the time and they care that much to reach out to me to make that gift special for that child was awesome.”
Bringing joy to counselors, too
Megan Pirrotta, FSS’s Family Support Counselor Supervisor, says the program has brought a lot of joy not only to the children, but to the counselors, themselves, and the caregivers. One of her favorite memories was when a family invited her and the children’s guardian ad litem to be there when the children opened their Be An Angel gifts.
“It was very personal and it felt nice to recognize that this is one cohesive team working toward the same goal, and we all got to experience the same magical holiday experience,” she says.
She laughs when she recalls the children dancing around the room in excitement and sending wrapping paper in every direction as they tore into their gifts.
“Our workers devote their lives to helping these children,” she says. “Having someone else step in and be a part of making the Christmas experience for these kids is huge.”
You can learn more about FSS at fssjax.org.