CCFI looking for Holiday Wishes donors

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Center for Children and Families will host an open house for its 50th anniversary from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Thursday.

Just before Christmas each year, Marquetta Autry arrives at the Center for Children and Families to pick up a special delivery.

With their children still inside the center, Autry and other parents receive black trash bags full of their children's Christmas wishes. They'll get to wrap the gifts themselves, making sure their kids have everything they want on Christmas.

"For me (it's) great, not having that extra burden and worry about providing extra gifts for the girls or getting gifts at all, because there's been some years where I didn't know if I would be able to get them for them," Autry said.

For decades now, the Center for Children and Families (CCFI), a Norman institution that provides resources for underserved families, has given Christmas gifts to kids who might not otherwise get them. The center's Holiday Wishes program partners kids who need a Christmas with families who can fulfill their wishlists.

CCFI is still looking for donors -- including individuals, business, churches and beyond -- to adopt kids' wish lists this season.

This year, Holiday Wishes will provide gifts for about 400 kids, said CCFI marketing and communications coordinator Amanda Pulis.

Aside from Holiday Wishes, CCFI, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, also runs a Boys and Girls Club of America chapter and offers therapy services for all ages. Holiday Wishes gives gifts to kids in the club and in counseling, along with all their siblings, Pulis said.

"We just really want to strengthen our families, just to have those connections with their kids," Pulis said. "A lot of the families that we serve just may not have the means to give their children presents or gifts at Christmastime because their resources might be tied up in paying the bills and making sure there's food on the table. Through this program, it's really uplifting for parents."

Autry, who has three daughters, has been participating in the Holiday Wishes program for two to three years, she said. While Holiday Wishes gifts come from donors, the program lets recipient parents wrap the gifts and give them directly to their kids.

"It really empowers them to feel like they are providing that for their child," Pulis said.

When Autry can't buy gifts for her kids at Christmas, it's good to know that she'll still be able to give them something anyway, she said.

"It's a really good feeling knowing that they are allowing (parents) to be seen as the hero, the parent that's coming through and able to give gifts, or even Santa Claus, if kids still believe in that," Autry said, "knowing that Santa came and visited them, and watching their faces light up like all the other kids on Christmas morning."

On the other side of the recipient families are the donors and volunteers who shop for and pack each year's gifts. The volunteers are families with kids of their own who want to shop for another child; they're local high school and college students who come to pack up each year's gifts.

"We have a tremendous response from community members wherever we do the first call for donors," Pulis said. "There's people every year that this is kind of their love and their way of giving, so we've definitely have people who've helped adopt wishlists for many, many years."

Jennifer Denison has volunteered with Holiday Wishes since her own children were in grade school -- together, they'd shop for other kids' presents and check off wishlists. Now, over 10 years later, Denison's children are in college, but she's still volunteering.

"I think it was because Christmas was always so special to me, and I saw a need in the community that was something I could help with," said Denison, who now helps with the Holiday Wishes planning process.

While Holiday Wishes offers recipient families a chance to feel empowered during the holidays, it offers volunteers a chance to show their community that they care. As Denison got her family involved, her husband Brad began spreading the news at work, where his coworkers joined in.

"Now, we adopt several kids and almost everybody at work participates in it, buying one gift or more for the families," said Brad Denision. "...We've always had great Christmases, and growing up, my mom and dad didn't have a lot of money, but they always found a way to get something for us. If we can participate in that and help some parents provide a great Christmas, that's just an opportunity that we're not going to pass up."

Outside of its Holiday Wishes program, CCFI provides resources and programming for kids and families that may be dealing with abuse, divorce or separation, teen pregnancy and more. The center, which will host an open house for its anniversary from 4:30-6 p.m. Thursday, also offers after-school and summer programming options for families.

Autry has had at least one of her three daughters in CCFI and Boys and Girls Club programming for the last three years, she said. Along with the Holiday Wishes program, CCFI provides Autry's daughters with daily snacks, exercise, homework help, field trips and more.

"They teach them about kindness and friendship and respect, which is one thing that I love," Autry said. "Another big perk is that they work with them....doing their homework. For me, that's a pretty big weight off of my shoulders after working until whatever time at night that I would get off before the (Boy's and Girls) club closes at seven. Not having to worry about still getting dinner ready and having homework...that's just one thing that's a weight off my shoulders."

Emma Keith366-3537@emma_ckeithekeith@normantranscript.com

Open house

Who: Center for Children and Families

What: 50th anniversary open house

When: 4:30-6 p.m. Thursday

Where: 210 S Cockrel Ave., Norman

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