Gunnar Von Bergen, a Talawanda High School freshman, joined his mother, Erin, helping to wrap gifts for Miami s Holiday Project. Erin Von Bergen works at Miami and said while she was growing up, her mother was a CASA volunteer. CONTRIBUTED/BOB RATTERMAN

‘The lists are very humbling’: How a Miami University project is helping foster children for Christmas

Large red bags full of gifts do not always come down the chimney on Christmas Eve with the right jolly ’ol elf arriving in a sleigh on the roof.

Foster children in Butler and Preble counties often do not get presents that way — many not at all — but thanks to the Holiday Project at Miami University, 165 are receiving a bag of gifts this Christmas all purchased and distributed thanks to a caring and busy volunteer force.

Anita Sackenheim has been coordinating the project for 23 of its 25 years and said it’s a year-round effort, but worth it to her.

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“We want kids to go back to school and brag about their gifts. It’s hard for kids in foster care to have something to brag about,” Sackenheim said. “You take for granted they know what gifts are.”

She said many of the children have never received a wrapped present, if they got any at all, and told the story of one little girl who was so enthralled with her gifts, she neatly folded some of the wrapping paper and kept it in her pillow for months. Her foster mom eventually suggested she throw it away but she refused, holding on to the memory of that Christmas.

She also told a story of a boy who received his bag of gifts, opened them and played with them while the CASA volunteer who brought them watched and talked to the foster mother. When the CASA volunteer prepared to leave, the boy carefully put the gifts back in the bag and dragged it over to her. He thanked her for letting him play with the toys, not realizing they were his to keep.

Sackenheim, a secretary in the Kinesiology and Health department at Miami, said the annual project has a special place in her heart because of a past family situation involving foster care but stories like those two are enough to keep her involved.

On hand for one of the two-hour wrapping sessions were Gunnar Von Bergen, a Talawanda High School freshman, and his mother Erin, who said she works with Sackenheim and said her mother was a CASA volunteer. She and her son were part of the brigade of volunteer shoppers who bought a massive load of presents in a seven-hour shopping spree Dec. 8 when more than 80 shoppers spent $15,212 in the Hamilton Meijer store.

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“I’ve given money before but this is the first year I have been involved and helped. I had a lot of fun getting up at 5 a.m. last Saturday and shopping,” Erin Von Bergen said. “It was fun. It was definitely, ‘How much can I get for this money.’ There were some super shoppers.”

She paid tribute to Sackenheim’s work with the Holiday Project.

“She inspires us all,” Von Bergen said.

The National Court Appointed Special Advocate Association, known as CASA, trains community volunteers to work as advocates for abused, neglected or dependent children in the Juvenile Court system. Volunteers are trained to investigate a child’s circumstances by interviewing any and all parties relating to the child. In Butler County they go by the name PARACHUTE.

Raising money for the shopping trip is a year-round effort with many university departments holding fundraisers, such as a chili cookoff hosted by Physical Facilities; a baby shower by the Education, Health and Society department; an auction of donated items by the Advancement office; a raffle by Classified Personnel Advisory Committee; and a Chuck-A-Puck held at a hockey game.

They also received money from the Woman’s Club of Oxford from their fall fashion show.

There are a multitude of individual donations from people who want to help.

“Even when I am shopping at the store, people stop me right and left (to give me money for the project),” Sackenheim said.

They also received a lot of in-kind donations which they can add to the gift bags for the kids — 17 boxes of books from Half Price Books in Mason, more than 100 pairs of shoes from Shoes for the Shoeless in Kettering, and boxes full of personal-care items like toothbrushes, toothpaste and other necessities.

She received grants from the Butler Rural Electric Cooperative, Hamilton Community Foundation and Henny Penny Corporation in Eaton.

The Meijer store also contributed by letting them use employee discounts, Santa Bucks and donating $5,000 in gift cards.

There were 85 shoppers on Dec. 8 working from gift lists provided by the courts. The shopping spree started at 6 a.m. to avoid the normal shopping crowd as much as possible, but the trip lasted until 1 p.m.

“The lists are very humbling,” Sackenheim said. “Some listed underwear and socks.”

She said the shoppers showed a lot of imagination getting the most for the $125 allotted for each child.

“It was fun getting a lot of different people involved,” she said.

Wrapping followed in the week after with two-hour shifts of volunteers reporting to the handball courts in Phillips Hall twice a day taking those bags of gifts and wrapping everything, which was then placed in large red laundry bags. Sackenheim said the kids keep the bags and some have found playful ways to use them as well as luggage.

The project is done with a committee of two—Sackenheim and Monica Streit, who serves as treasurer and “keeps the paperwork straight.”

The Project was begun 25 years ago by Nancy Coon, herself an orphan, and Sackenheim said she was soon involved, taking over leadership of a program which was small at the time, focused on some gifts and toiletries.

“It kept growing,” she said. “I start on (next year) as soon as I finish. People keep me accountable for this. I start checking for grants and do it early.

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