Featured Program: Michigan's "Adopt-a-Family" Program

By: Kathleen Erickson, executive assistant to the President/CEO Volunteers of America Michigan

Walking into the “Adopt A Family” office is sensory overload for me. Twenty phones ringing nonstop, volunteers unpacking donations of clothing and toys, parents waiting their turn to retrieve their Christmas gifts, and volunteers with recipients moving in and out of rooms. A mother calls because she moved from one low-rent apartment to another. Will her sponsor be able to find her? A single father just survived a house fire. Can his children be adopted for Christmas? Deadlines for applications are long passed. There are 6,000 families who have applied for Christmas assistance and we are working feverishly to match them with sponsors. In the words of another Christmas story, there is no more room in the inn. And did I say 20 phones ringing incessantly?

This month I am a temp at Volunteers of America Michigan assisting the main office while several of the permanent staff work on the Adopt A Family program. But as Christmas nears, I am also working on Adopt A Family for most of each day. At the end of the day, I return to the quiet main office to check messages while calming my overloaded senses. Packing my things to leave for the day, the phone rings. Do I answer one more call? What awaits me on the other end is Tabitha, a young homeless mother who got our number from the New Hope Day Center, our homeless service center 90 miles away. Can she apply to have her children adopted for Christmas? My response should be, “No. I’m sorry but the deadline has passed.” But she is living in one of our shelters and, as I find out, is in chemotherapy for thyroid cancer. I fax her an application and leave for home.

For several days, I check my fax machine for her application and feel a little relief that nothing arrives. No chance for this family to be disappointed if not adopted. I check my messages at the day’s end and hear Tabitha’s voice. “I can’t get my copies of my children’s birth certificates by the weekend. The city office is closed. Would you please accept my application anyway? I’ll get to the office on Monday and send you copies?” I consent. Copies of birth certificates are required. Why am I stretching the rules for Tabitha?

As I process her application, I see that we have more than thyroid disease in common. She is the same age as my stepdaughter. But my step-daughter is planning her wedding and Tabitha has been a mother since she was 15 years old. Now, at 29 years old, Tabitha has four children, is homeless and battling cancer. I peruse the children’s wish lists: coats, hats, gloves and educational toys. Looks like Tabitha filled out the lists; practical and essential items. But Christmas is just a week away and we have filing cabinets full of such families waiting to be adopted. I don’t want to give her false hope.

A woman named Kerri and her daughters arrive on December 23 at the start of a snowstorm to volunteer with Adopt A Family. Her husband is home with their new baby and she wants to contribute with her older girls. It has been a good year for her family but she knows many others in Michigan are hurting. Once in the excitement of the Adopt A Family offices, Kerri voices her wish to adopt a family. “It’s not too late. We have files full of families who qualify.” I collect a stack of applications and include Tabitha’s. I see my own concern reflected in Kerri’s face when I share Tabitha’s story. After Kerri’s shift ends, she goes shopping and returns with two bags of gifts for Tabitha’s children. But in the struggle with the storm and two tired children, she leaves one of the bags in the cart at the store. Returning to the store, the bag is gone. Discouraged, Kerri returns home, leaving us with half of the gifts she purchased for Tabitha’s family.

I call Tabitha with the news: her children have Christmas gifts in our office. I reach her at her sister’s house – Tabitha, of course, has no phone. She also has no car and our office is 90 miles away, separated by distance and a snowstorm. It’s too late to mail the gifts. How can her children get these gifts? I quiet my thoughts in spite of the 20 phones still ringing, think through my own family plans and then offer to deliver the gifts on Christmas Eve. After all, we will be traveling out of state, so what’s another 90 minutes for our trip?

Early in the morning of Christmas Eve Kerri calls to tell me she went shopping at midnight after her children were asleep. I’m about to leave for Tabitha’s so we meet in a parking lot to load more gifts. The roads are plowed and the snow has stopped. Travel is easy. So why do I feel a little nervous to meet Tabitha?

The smell of cleaning supplies makes me think Tabitha has prepared for my visit. Tabitha looks older than my step-daughter and shows the effects of chemotherapy but she glows with excitement. Her “new home” is immaculate. A church donated furniture for her just days earlier. She shoos her children into the basement while I carry their gifts into the house. I am moved beyond words so we share mostly looks and long hugs. As I make my way to meet my family in South Bend, I know I am the true recipient of this season of giving. My singing heart tells me so.

For more information about this program, visit Volunteers of America of Michigan's "Adopt-A-Family" Web page.