“The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable.” —Mahatma Ghandi (1869-1948)
In Williamson County, residents are known for being quick to answer a call to help those in need. But what happens when there’s a need but no call?
That’s what the staff and volunteers involved with CASA, Juvenile Services and Juvenile Court see — especially during the holidays — and it pulls at their hearts. In a joint operation formed several years ago between juvenile services organizations, Operation Santa was created to provide gifts for children in the system who most likely would not have a Christmas.
Although Christmas 2019 is still nine months away, plans are already in motion to help those who don’t make the call this Christmas.
But what about the rest of the year? What happens at Easter or back-to-school time?
Some who “adopted families” for Operation Santa have taken it upon themselves to continue helping throughout the year.
“We wanted to provide a message to the kids that they matter and are a part of this community,” said Zannie Martin, Juvenile Court director.
However, there are others still falling through the cracks.
Plans are being made to create a backup a plan and to partner with other organizations, such as Graceworks. In the meantime, Christmas partnerships are being sought and YSOs are making their watch lists.
“Operation Santa is a reflection of how we, as a community organization, love our families,” said Tami Schultheis, CASA advocate supervisor. “It reflects the heart of the organization.”
It sends a message to the children and also reflects Williamson County’s heart for the vulnerable.
Numerous parents, guardians and children have sent handwritten thank-you notes because of the generosity of Operation Santa.
A judge heard of a young boy who said, “They really do care for me,” while another youngster said she didn’t feel like a “leftover child.”
When the welfare of a child or children is threatened and the court removes them from their home, the preferred placement is with another family member — grandparents, older siblings, aunts, uncles or other relatives. The second choice is to place them with a foster family.
There is a dedicated fund designated to help foster parents care for fostered children. No such fund exists for family members, who step up and take in juvenile relatives or when a primary financial provider has been removed from the home.
Many times these families need support, including goods, food, clothes and other services.
Martin spoke about three children, ages 6 and younger, who were recently removed from their home.
“A 26-year-old relative living in a one-bedroom apartment stepped up and took all three,” Martin said. “She had nothing they needed. Her life and the kids’ lives were turned upside down.”
Williamson County CASA, Juvenile Court and Child Support Services of Tennessee do what they can to find necessities such as beds, dressers and bedding, but what happens when a holiday such as Christmas hits?
“Some of these families are just making it day to day when they take these kids,” said Judy Herbert, retired director of Child Support Services of Tennessee. “When the (holidays) come, there’s nothing for the extras.”
Until Operation Santa.
“This takes a lot off their shoulders,” Herbert added.
Youth Service officers work with families to create stability for the children and the caring adults. Since they know the families that are struggling, YSOs collect lists of what is needed, said Terry Cozart Arnold, Youth Service officer supervisor.
“Child Services studies the list and picks out the most needy — the neediest of the needy,” Herbert added.
After learning about CASA during a meeting, Williamson Inc’s Young Professionals group was looking for a project. And since the county’s growth has begun to make it difficult to continue Operation Santa, a natural solution was at hand. The group chose Operation Santa as its project and still wants to continue to give.
Shikhar Shukla, a member of the Young Professionals group and business development manager for Skanska, said, “We went to CASA and asked, ‘What do you need?’ ”
Shukla said that Marianne Schroer, CASA’s executive director, “sent us to Zannie,” adding, “We were just looking to be useful.”
A partnership was forged with Operation Santa that allowed the project to reach more families, while generating new ideas to improve the program.
Along with additional family sponsors who stepped up, more than $2,860 was raised to help provide a merrier Christmas for 56 children in 23 families that wouldn’t have had a Christmas.
At a Franklin Noon Rotary meeting, a hat was passed and $1,400 was raised. “That came right from their pockets,” said Herbert. “(They) are very generous. They were one of our biggest donors.”
The numbers don’t reflect the personal shopping money that was spent.
“A lot of people adopted families and took care of everyone, often including the adults,” Arnold said.
“We were able to get (the children) what they wanted as well as what they needed. We wanted to give them room to dream. They’re kids, and they want what other kids want.”
Since the inception of Operation Santa, those involved have been affected as much as those who received the gifts.
“Once you do it, you get hooked,” Arnold said.
And family members get involved and get hooked, Herbert added.
“I was touched to be able to help kids from around here,” said YP member, Lindsay Curtis.
“It was humbling for me to be a part of this project, and I want to continue to be a part of it.”