Kiwanis and Key Club members work together to bring happy holidays to families in need.
By Cindy Dashnaw
For most students (and many teachers), their school’s holiday break can’t come soon enough. But for many students, the 11 or so weekdays away from school also mean missing a guaranteed midday meal, as they rely on free and reduced-cost lunch programs to meet their nutritional needs.
Families with lower incomes likely struggle to properly celebrate their holiday traditions, too.
It’s a situation members of the Kiwanis Club of South Lake in Florida recognized, and the pandemic made the need even more dire.
“Many families in our community are struggling financially,” says Jennifer Ganley, the club’s vice president and media chair. “We wanted to offer a helping hand to relieve a financial burden during the holidays.”
So in 2020, club members created a project to address both needs: Christmas Across South Lake, designed to collect toys and food for local families’ holidays. They got started in September, and word spread quickly. Organizations and volunteers jumped on board: the Kiwanis Club of Clermont, the Clermont (Florida) Police Department, the chamber of commerce, local food banks — and Key Club members.
“It required a real team effort, and Key Club members volunteered many hours packing food bags and assembling bicycles,” Ganley says. “They promoted the project in their schools and assisted families when they came to pick up their toys. It was a six-week collaborative effort.”
About 40,000 flyers spread around the community by social media, schools, churches, restaurants and food pantries shared instructions for giving and receiving gifts. Local print, online and television media outlets gave the project additional exposure. Schools, food pantries, the Hope Center (which works to prevent homelessness) and the Faith Neighborhood Center food pantry provided collection, packing and distribution sites and volunteers. These efforts resulted in food given to 1,100 families.
Simultaneously, the collection of holiday gifts was proceeding.
“We partnered with local businesses large and small to collect toys, bicycles, games, computers and crafts for children ranging from infants to teens,” Ganley says. “Residents were invited to donate toys at one of our 165 toy-collection boxes.”
As a result, 2,900 children received toys, with each child receiving gifts valued at a minimum of US$65, including accessible toys where appropriate. Some older children received gift cards, a skateboard or a laptop computer.
“This event had no overhead. Everything was donated. It was a true labor of love for our club,” Ganley says. “Working with our community, we were able to lift up neighbors who are struggling during these difficult.”
What began as a pandemic project has continued. In 2021, over 3,000 children and 550 families benefited from the program, and this year continues the new tradition. In fact, Christmas Across South Lake has become the South Lake Kiwanis Club’s largest community service project.