Christmas in the system

Generous community makes the holiday special for foster children

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Gifts for foster kids were brought to Social Services for case workers to sort through, wrap and distribute. These were just a few that haven't been delivered yet. Enlargephoto

Rachel Segura/Cortez Journal

Gifts for foster kids were brought to Social Services for case workers to sort through, wrap and distribute. These were just a few that haven't been delivered yet.

An economic downturn may just be the best time for giving. The last few years have proven to be penny-pinching times, but that hasn't deterred the Cortez community from bringing Christmas to those less fortunate.

Once Upon a Sandwich, in conjunction with the Montezuma County Department of Social Services, has been working to put gifts into the hands of foster children for the last 10 years. This past year, ironically, has been the most productive.

The small colorful Christmas tree that sits near the register at Once Upon a Sandwich in downtown Cortez is tag free. Every child whose name appeared on a tag that hung from its limbs, was chosen by a community member. Ages for foster children range from six months to 18 years of age.

The tree sits at Once Upon a Sandwich because Carolyn Hessom is an advocate and supporter of foster children. She and her husband Rick, who own the restaurant, were once foster parents themselves.

About three years ago, Jody Mealing, foster care coordinator, was afraid the tree might get phased out. At the time they were working with Montezuma-Cortez High School, but students had plans for another cause.

"We were going to die out," Mealing said half-heartedly. "I didn't know if the community could afford to keep it going."

Fortunately, Carolyn came to the rescue and the program is as strong as ever. She was adamant about the program and the children. She had faith the community would respond passionately.

Mealing was the head of the foster children tree program for eight years before passing the torch to Brenda Jarmon, case aide. In the past, Mealing said, several tags would continue to hang as the days in December ticked by.

"People like to shop for younger kids who want the cute clothes and the fun toys," Mealing said. "No one likes to get stuck with a teenager because they always ask for the expensive things like the latest phone or an iPod."

A few years ago, it was not uncommon for the ladies to knock on business doors in the community and ask for donations to help provide the forgotten kids with a little Christmas cheer. The community always responded joyfully and things always worked out. But this year, they were happy to see every tag leave the tree.

"People were really delighted to shop for teens this year," Mealing said. "The community went above and beyond when buying these gifts."

The most heartwarming part of buying gifts this year was that several of the teenagers were aging out of the system. Four 17-year-old girls were leaving the foster program to settle on their own. Their requests were not for the latest phones or iPods but for independence. These girls knew they would soon be living on their own and their tags listed items that would help get them on their feet: pots and pans, utensils, plates and cups, bathroom essentials and other needs for an apartment.

"It's hard for kids aging out of the system because they are leaving with nothing," said Mealing. "So they were inclined to ask for things for an apartment."

And that is precisely what they got. Perhaps that was the topper on the tree for gift buyers.

A local church banded together and shipped four large boxes of independent-living items to Once Upon a Sandwich, along with clothing plus $60 worth of gift certificates.

"I hope these kids appreciate what they get, because I can't believe how good the community has been," Jarmon said.

There have been various different organizations who came to the rescue of this Christmas tradition. The Dolores Mountain Quilters make quilted stockings each year for every child and then stuff them full of goodies, a couple of churches bought gifts and a local hiking group also funded a child. Even past foster parents picked a tag off the tree, knowing full well what they were contributing to these children.

Every year gets better. Mealing and Jarmon were completely touched by the community's willness to give.

"I can't put into words how great they are," Jarmon said.

Gifts for foster children were brought to the sandwich shop throughout the month of December with the last day for drop-off being the Dec. 20. Donors were asked not to wrap the gifts so that foster parents got the opportunity to decide how to handle the gifts.

Whether the presents were credited to Santa, the parents or the social services office was purely up to the family, but Mealing was elated to know that one particular parent was going to be tagging her gifts as "from the Cortez community."

rachels@cortezjournal.com

A few gifts and plush toys sit under the tree. Dec. 20 was the last day for gifts to be brought to Once Upon a Sandwich. Gifts were asked to be unwrapped. Enlargephoto

Rachel Segura/Cortez Journal

A few gifts and plush toys sit under the tree. Dec. 20 was the last day for gifts to be brought to Once Upon a Sandwich. Gifts were asked to be unwrapped.

The Christmas Tree for foster children at Once Upon a Sandwich sits bare near the register. This year all the tags were taken by community members. Enlargephoto

Rachel Segura/Cortez Journal

The Christmas Tree for foster children at Once Upon a Sandwich sits bare near the register. This year all the tags were taken by community members.