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Santa Central

If you think your house gets chaotic during the holidays, you should have seen the basement of Bremerton’s YWCA last Wednesday night.

“We call this Santa Central, and these are all elves.” Julie Winchester says with a grin while she surveys the room. Rolls of wrapping paper and spools of ribbon clutter the tables, but what is most overwhelming are the number of gifts which occupy the majority of the space.

Clothes, toys and an assortment of other items numbering in the hundreds have been dropped off by community members, businesses and organizations and will be carefully decorated with colorful paper and bows (all of which were donated by local service organizations) tonight in preparation for the following Saturday, Dec. 14 when the families they are intended for will collect them.

It is the annual wrapping party for the YWCA’s adopt-a-family program; about 30 volunteers will spend three or more hours wrapping presents for needy local families this evening.

Winchester is right in the middle of it all, organizing gifts and making sure everyone has scissors. A lively energy flows through the room and there is no shortage of smiles on the folks tying the bows.

Rosemarie Ide’s family of four has been participating in this event since 1996. This year, she and her daughter Katherine, 9, son Daniel, 7, and her husband created about 1,000 festively decorated labels to adorn the packages, a task they began three weeks prior. The Ide children enjoy participating in the wrapping session, and their mother appreciates the values that are instilled in them through their volunteer work.

“It raises my children’s awareness,” Ide said. “I think it helps them to feel a part of the community. Kids don’t know what they can do to help.”

The process leading up to this evening of adornment began weeks ago when donors began calling Winchester, the YWCA’s director of youth services and family outreach, wanting to help YWCA clients during the holiday season. Donors may request any number of specifications who they would like to “adopt” for Christmas, but usually she just tries to match them up with a good fit.

When a group of seven families from a Poulsbo neighborhood contacted Winchester recently, they asked to assist a large family or a couple of smaller ones. Winchester paired them up with local clan of eight.

The generosity they demonstrated through boxes and bags brimming with the most basic household items like razors, dish soap and mixing bowls, food in family-size quantities and gorgeously wrapped gifts for the six children who range in age from one and a half to 17 years old was overwhelming. It was also overflowing the kitchen space of the YWCA where the gifts waited to be picked up by the father of the household last Wednesday night. YWCA volunteers and employees helped him cart the collection out to a borrowed pickup truck — a much welcomed and appreciated early Christmas cornucopia.

“This particular family, they have asked for things to really subsist with,” Winchester explains after the man has left. “This isn’t frills — this is pretty basic stuff.”

The family’s donors were initially concerned about their meager requests.

“I said, ‘do you realize what it costs to keep clean?’” Winchester said. She knows food stamps don’t help families in need buy cleaning supplies and the costs of laundry detergent and other must-have items can add up quickly, especially for a family of eight.

This particular family seems to have made a solid impression upon Winchester.

“They’re some of the most resourceful people I know,” Winchester said. Tears come to her eyes as she brings up an example. The mother of the family was given a crate of peaches from a neighbor who couldn’t use the fruit up fast enough. They were beginning to attract flies. The woman used every bit of that gift, making jams, fruit roll ups from the skins, potpourri from the pits and a shelf for one of her children’s rooms from the crate.

“That’s the kind of person who you would want to give the shirt of your back to,” Winchester said.

Most of the families and individuals will receive their adopt-a-family gifts today at a holiday celebration held at the YWCA. After being treated to cookies, cocoa and hot cider, kids can select from over 300 stuffed animals as they wait to have their picture taken with Santa Claus. While they’re distracted, busy YWCA volunteers are helping to load up their parents’ vehicles with donated gifts, all cleverly disguised in black garbage bags so the Santa stash can remain secret until the 25th.

Winchester often delivers last minute gifts right up to Christmas Day, a sure sign of her intense commitment to what she does.

She is perhaps all the more compassionate when it comes to the “families in crisis” she assists because she’s endured similar situations.

“I work two jobs myself and I’m a single parent,” she said. Winchester is also, as she describes, a “survivor” of domestic violence.

“This community amazes me,” Winchester said. “We’re all struggling, but whether they’ve been helped by the YWCA or they’ve heard of us, we’ve been very well supported.”

When all the work and hubbub of the adopt-a-family program is over, Winchester can finally take it all in and think about what she and all the other volunteers and donors have accomplished.

“I really just kind of sit on the floor,” she said. “That’s when the tears really flow, because I know all these families have been helped. It’s just magic.”

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