CONYERS -- Michael Hutcheson admits that this time every year it seems like a daunting task -- collecting holiday gifts for more than 1,000 low-income children in Rockdale County -- yet, somehow, in a few short weeks, it all gets done.
"Everything runs smoothly every year. I'm amazed at how the resources come in because when we start we don't have any," said Hutcheson, executive director of the Rockdale Coalition for Children and Family Services.
For the eighth year, the Rockdale Coalition is organizing its Christmas Hope for the Holidays toy and gift collection to benefit children and teens in the county whose families cannot afford to provide them with extras during the holiday season.
The Rockdale Coalition is asking the community to donate new, unwrapped toys and new clothing for children ages newborn to 12. Gift cards for teens from 13 to 17 are also being requested, as are financial donations to allow the Rockdale Coalition to purchase gifts.
Hutcheson said the Nancy Guinn Memorial Library is a public collection site and that any churches, businesses, schools or other organizations that wish to set up a collection box may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 770-761-9244.
Hutcheson said statistics bear out a growing need for programs such as Christmas Hope.
The number of children eligible for free and reduced lunches, one indicator of financial hardship, in the Rockdale County School System, has grown from 50 percent in 2008 to 66 percent this year, he said.
In addition, according to the Anne E. Casey Foundation's Kids Count data, 24 percent of children in Rockdale County live in poverty, said Hutcheson. He also pointed out the unemployment rate in Rockdale is about 11 percent.
"We've seen an increase in demand for the past few years. It's been a steady increase," said Hutcheson of the numbers of families in need.
Hutcheson said the majority of children who benefit from Christmas Hope are referred through the Rockdale County School System and the Rockdale Department of Children and Families. If families need assistance, they should contact a school counselor or teacher.
Hutcheson said every effort is made to compare the names of families on the Rockdale Coalition gift list with those on other organization's lists, such as Rockdale Emergency Relief, to avoid any duplication.
The Rockdale Coalition is seeking volunteers to help with the distribution of the gifts which takes place Dec. 21-23 at the Rockdale Government Annex, 1400 Parker Road in Conyers. Volunteers are also being recruited for pre-event jobs including to help with setup on Dec. 20 and to assist over the next few weeks with data entry, toy box placements, toy collections, and recruitment of donations and volunteers.
Hutcheson said about 125 volunteers work the distribution event. They not only give away the toys to the children, but they also pass out light refreshments to families who are waiting their turn.
Volunteers, many of whom are from the faith community, also offer prayer to the families.
He said one volunteer observed that the families come in looking down, and leave cheerful, with smiles on their faces.
"Our goal is not to only provide families with toys, but also to send a message of hope that there is a community that cares about them and there are volunteers that care about them and want to lighten their load during the holiday season," said Hutcheson.
For more information, visit www.rockdalecoalition.org.