Santa’s workshop on Friday was the cafeteria at Warrenton Grade School’s cafeteria. Lining the benches where kids eat were black trash bags, stuffed with gifts and tagged with the Christmas wishes of anonymous families.
Warrenton-Hammond Healthy Kids, the nonprofit providing holiday dinners, gifts and daily living staples to local youth in need, collected donations for about 100 families and 250 kids to take home for Christmas gifts.
“Every kid goes home with a gift,” said Debbie Morrow, head of the group and chairwoman of the Warrenton-Hammond School Board.
The district has consistently faced the highest rates of student homelessness, with large backpack food programs helping feed around 180 each weekend. The Christmas gift started three years ago providing for 150 kids, then grew to 238 the following year, Morrow said.
Families submit a form at the beginning of the year indicating whether they want to partake in the backpack programs, holiday meals and other services. For Christmas, they list their children’s gender, age and interests. Families adopt and shop for others, while Healthy Kids fills the gaps with separate donations and shopping.
Overseeing such aid programs is Rosa Gilbert, the district’s bilingual family liaison and federal programs coordinator.
“Our greatest need is with adolescents,” Gilbert said.
Reaching out for help is more stigmatizing for teenagers, Gilbert said. The district tries to identify older kids in need though their parents and younger siblings. Separate gift drives run by the owners of Main Street Market and Warrenton Mini-Mart focus on older kids.
Gilbert’s position was added after the district realized there was a barrier to parental involvement, Gilbert said. About 13 percent of the district is Hispanic, and 90 percent of the parents in those families don’t speak English.
The district recently opened the Warrior Room, a resource center for families needing computer access or meeting space, and an environment to grow trust between parents and educators. The district offers classes in parenting, searching for colleges and special migrant students sections for kids whose parents have to move for work.
“It’s all about what parents need to make sure their kids are successful,” Gilbert said.