Every child should be able to wake up on Christmas morning, run to the Christmas tree and find a present underneath with his name on it.
That’s the motivation behind the Angel Tree project, a partnership between the Johnston County Department of Social Services and local businesses.
In the weeks before Christmas this year, Social Services delivered some 200 paper angel ornaments to 21 businesses. The ornaments held the names of foster children and their Christmas wishes. From there, the businesses’ employees became Kris Kringle’s elves, taking names off trees and buying and wrapping presents.
Last week, Tony Harris, director of foster-care licensing for Social Services, made his rounds to gather up the presents.
Friday morning, he stopped at Sysco in Selma, where Santa’s helpers loaded a truck with gifts of all shapes and sizes colorfully wrapped in holiday paper.
Tom Propps, president of Sysco in Selma, came out to see the collection and thank Harris for organizing the Angel Tree project.
“That’s better than Santa’s sleigh right there,” he said, looking at the truck full of presents.
“I think a lot of our employees enjoyed this,” Propps said. “It’s great that you’re giving Christmas back to the community.”
Harris expressed his gratitude to the Sysco employees. “This goes a long way with the kids,” he told them. “Thank you.”
Back at the National Guard Armory in Smithfield, the wrapped Christmas gifts piled up. Social Services stored the gifts there because they wouldn’t all fit in its buildings nearby. Foster parents came in to pick up gifts off their children’s wish lists. And Social Services had an abundance of extra gifts for children who came into the system in the last month.
Social Services employee Judy Brinkley helped organize the extra gifts last week. She said the adrenaline and Christmas joy of taking part in the Angel Tree project is still there for her because she has a personal connection to it.
Brinkley fostered 35 children during a seven-year period before coming to work for Social Services. She was unable to have children biologically and decided foster care and adoption were her best options. She is no longer a foster parent but adopted three kids and is still a mom to twin girls, now in their 30s, whom she fostered.
For seven years, Brinkley came to the Angel Tree every Christmas for those few extra gifts for her foster children.
“Our kids would have had something, but because of the Angel Tree program, we were able to do more,” she said.
It was a major help for the older kids she fostered, especially teens, because they start asking for more expensive gifts.
“Everybody wants to buy baby stuff, and babies are easy to buy for,” Brinkley said. “But we fostered older kids and teens too. They can be left out. Through the Angel Tree program, every kid every year had Christmas. It didn’t matter their age.”
“What I found with the children that I fostered was that even if they could get one thing they asked for on their list, it makes them feel more normal,” Brinkley said. “It doesn’t single them out as foster kids.”
Brinkley said most of the kids she fostered understood why they were in care and why they couldn’t be with their birth families.
“And they understood that because of the generosity of the people that pull names off the Angel Tree, there was something under the tree for them that might not have been otherwise.” she said. “Maybe they didn’t get everything on their wish list, but getting that one thing meant the world to them.”
One Christmas she remembers clearly is the year the twin girls were 14, and they received stylish teenage clothes that fit their figures.
“They got stylish clothes that made them feel like teenage girls, not old ladies that had to shop in the plus department,” Brinkley said. “When we opened the bags, they were so happy. That’s what I remembered more than anything else.”
Angel Tree 2015 Participants
Automatic Rolls of North Carolina in Clayton
Bistro on Third in Smithfield
Cary Academy in Cary
Gotham’s Deli in Smithfield
Grifols Therapeutics Inc. in Clayton
Johnston County manager’s office
Johnston County Teacher Assistants Association
Johnston UNC Health Care in Smithfield and Clayton
Julie Ann’s Salon in Smithfield
KS Bank in Selma
Morgan’s Gymnastics Academy in Smithfield
NNE Pharma Plan in Morrisville
Nexxus Lexus in Raleigh
Novo Nordisk in Clayton
Smithfield Recreation and Aquatics Center
Starbucks in Clayton
Sysco Raleigh LLC in Selma
Steps on Stage in Benson
Walmart in Garner
WakeMed in Raleigh
Walmart in Smithfield