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Smart Start provides Christmas for six local families

SALISBURY – Smart Start Rowan has been providing Christmas for local families through its Angel Tree program for 18 years.

Started by program manager Laura Villegas to benefit local families, it normally provides Christmas for two to four families. This year, Smart Start was able to provide gifts for six, including one large family.

The agency normally coordinates items that are brought in, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Smart Start only accepted monetary donations and sent out a couple staff members to be elves and purchase the items. Smart Start took in $4,000 this year.

“We really wanted there to be as few people touching the items as possible,” Outreach and Development Specialist and honorary elf Sarah Paynter said.

The agency wrapped and labeled presents, and families picked them up before Christmas.

“It’s my favorite day of the year when the families come in to pick things up, because they’re crying and we’re crying, we usually hug, but we can’t touch this year,” Paynter said.

Paynter said the agency serves children up to 5 years old, but this year’s donations benefited entire families. She added it was nice to give for the parents as well, since they are often working hard as caregivers and do not receive anything for Christmas.

Smart Start contacts N.C. Pre-K childcare centers for nominations and then picks out families that need extra support.

The program focuses on what families need first. Sometimes it’s shoes, work clothes or other essentials. The agency tries to provide some wants also.

The agency saw more need along with increased donations this year, Family Support Program Lead Shurna Rabsatt said. Families have had more hardship because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some parents have lost jobs and not been able to find work or had to take on temporary positions. Some families have been unsure how they would make ends meet.

Rabsatt said some families have had changing living situations as well, so household essentials were helpful as well.

“It puts things into perspective,” she said, adding it was exciting to see how generous donors were this year.

One mother said the program was a little light at the end of the tunnel for the family and thought she would have to make two trips to fit all the gifts in her vehicle. The staff managed to get her home in one.

Rabsatt has been a social worker for more than 20 years. She said she has spoken to these families on the phone and knows they needed something to brighten the end of this year.

“I love being able to talk to them, because I call them ahead of time just to kind of find out what their needs are, their wants,” Rabsatt said.

The agency tries to get specific, asking things like if a child has a favorite character and tries to get as close as possible to what everyone is asking for.

“You feel like you know these families before you even see them,” Rabsatt said, adding she loves everything about the experience.

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