Photo by Heather Middleton
By Curt Yeomans
Riverdale resident, Sabrina Brown, could not hold back her smiles after volunteers from the Clayton County Public Schools Homeless Education Services Department showed her several bags of gifts employees in the school system's maintenance department got for her five children.
There were stuffed animals, clothes, a remote controlled car, and even the game, "Cooties," laid out before Brown, fellow Riverdale resident, Derrick Johnson, and their 2-year-old son, Kingston Brown.
The Homeless Education Services Department got the gifts for Brown's family through its annual Christmas-gift sponsorship program, in which district employees sponsor Christmas for needy families. Brown, who lives with her mother, said she would not have been able to afford a Christmas for her children without the department's help. She explained that she lost her job picking up rental cars at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in October.
"I'm really happy, because my children are going to be able to experience Christmas," said Brown, as she picked up the gifts on Dec. 23. "I was talking with my mother the other day, and I was telling her I couldn't afford to buy my kids any gifts, so I didn't know what I was going to do, if they [the Homeless Education Services Department] couldn't help us.
"But, when we got the call, and they said they found a sponsor for my family, and that I could pick up my kids' gifts, we were ecstatic," she added.
Seventy Clayton County Public Schools families, who received assistance from the district's Homeless Education Services Department, got to experience emotions similar to Sabrina Brown, as they came to pick up gifts from the department's office in Morrow. Sonia Davis, the coordinator of department, said the families include 208 children, and almost all of the sponsors were school system employees.
Davis said this is the sixth year for the Christmas-sponsorship program. She said there are 1,500 children in the Clayton County Public Schools system, who are classified as "homeless." She explained the "homeless" tag can be misleading, however, because it does not necessarily mean a person does not have a place to live. There are multiple definitions for "homeless" under state and federal education guidelines, she said.
"It can be used to describe someone who is 'doubled up,' which means they are living with someone else, usually a relative, due to a hardship," she said. "It can [also] mean people living in hotels [or] motels, living in shelters, living in abandoned buildings, or living in temporary foster care."
She said families that received gifts through the sponsorship program had to go through a screening process, which included paperwork that explained the families' situations, why they were "homeless," why they needed assistance with gifts, and what their Christmas gift wish lists were.
Families also had to promise they would not seek assistance for gifts from other programs, Davis said. She also said that, in addition to securing sponsors for families, her department got financial donations from employees and community members, so it could buy gifts for families that did not get a sponsor.
Tammy Barton, a textbook specialist in the Clayton County Public Schools Maintenance Department, said her department purchased more than 100 gifts, worth more than $1,000, for the families it sponsored. Barton also said she reached out to officials with the Advocates Behind CASA, a support group for the Clayton County Court Appointed Special Advocates program, and at Heritage Cadillac, and got them to donate bicycles and hundreds of dollars in clothing-store gift cards for families.
Barton said the department's employees opted to sponsor multiple families because of the number of families that signed up for assistance. Barton said that between two families, maintenance department employees provided Christmas for nine Clayton County children.
"With today's economy the way it is, we wanted to do something to help out," Barton said. "We just have very giving employees, and we wanted to give something back."
In addition to Sabrina Brown's family, the school system's maintenance department also sponsored Conley resident, Sabrina Dodson's family. Dodson said she has been raising her 9-year-old niece, and 12-year-old nephew, since shortly after they were born. Dodson added that she and her niece and nephew live with her 90-year-old mother, and one of her brothers.
Dodson explained that she has been unemployed since a work-related accident in 2001. Like Brown, Dodson was elated when she saw that the school system's maintenance employees bought scooters and safety gear for her niece and nephew.
"It's a blessing, because I didn't have any income, and I couldn't afford to buy them anything this year," she said.