Lending a ‘hand’ to families in need this holiday season

Oakdale business association seeks donations

Johanna Holub
news editor

What started as a small group of people helping struggling families during the holiday season has blossomed into a community outreach effort taken on by more than a hundred volunteers.

The Holiday Helping Hands program, which was started more than 20 years ago by the Oakdale Business and Professional Association (OBPA), now serves more than 80 North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District 622 families each year.

In early December, students from Tartan High School will come together with volunteers from the community to wrap donated presents and hand-deliver them to local families in need.

The Rev. John Larson of Hope Church says the program started out as a “small vision” and has since transformed into “a simple but complex” outreach effort thanks to the added volunteer power from Tartan students since the late 1990s. Larson, a member of the business association, oversees the Holiday Helping Hands project.

District 622 social workers help determine which families would benefit from the Holiday Helping Hands program. Skyview Elementary School social worker Sari Malterud says some of the families have previously expressed needs, while others may have recently experienced an unexpected change in their circumstances, such as the loss of a job or sudden homelessness.

The extra boost around the holidays, Malterud says, can really make a difference for parents and their children.

“I always hear from families how their kids would not have had a Christmas without the help of the program—that without Holiday Helping Hands they would not have received any gifts at all,” she explains. “The families are always beyond grateful for the help and assistance during the holiday season.”

So far, OBPA has raised about $7,000 for the program this year, and Tartan students are encouraged to help sponsor a family as a class, Larson says. Community members are also encouraged to help out by sponsoring a family, which costs about $50, or buying gifts directly, he added.

“The sky’s the limit,” Larson says. “We can reach about 325 kids by sponsoring 80 families, but if we get a more generous response we could help maybe 100 families like we have in the past. It really depends on the financial piece.”

On Dec. 7, Tartan’s cafeteria will be transformed into a “home base” where gifts will be wrapped, organized and sorted into vehicles for delivery. About 60 to 80 Tartan students will take part in the efforts, with some even dressing up like Santa Claus or his elves to hand-deliver the presents to the families.

For many volunteers, the most rewarding part of Holiday Helping Hands is seeing kids’ faces light up when they see all the presents.

“Families are usually overwhelmed,” Larson says. “It’s a wonderful experience to see the joy on their faces, and see the kids realizing that someone cares about them. Sometimes you see tears on the parents’ faces—they’re relieved that there will be presents under the tree this year.

“It’s a positive experience.”

Malterud echoes that sentiment. “I have received a number of thank you cards (over the years). The best feedback is always the smiles and laughter on the children’s faces, and the tears and hugs of joy from parents on delivery day.”

Larson estimates the program probably amounts to $20,000 overall between donated time, money and gifts, but the real impact—aiding families in a time of need—is truly priceless.

For more information about Holiday Helping Hands, including how you can contribute financially or by volunteering, contact the Rev. John Larson at 651-755-5591.

Johanna Holub can be reached at jholub@lillienews.com or 651-748-7822.

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