From Aspen to Carbondale, holiday baskets program helps more than 250 families | AspenTimes.com

From Aspen to Carbondale, holiday baskets program helps more than 250 families

While most people cringe at the thought of Christmas music or decorations before Thanksgiving, the volunteers of Aspen's Holiday Baskets Program were working to get ready for the holidays early in August.

From finding families in need to wrapping roughly 2,000 presents every year, the 35-year-old program ensures that more than 1,000 members of the community — or 250 families — don't wake up Christmas morning with nothing under their trees.

"You wouldn't think in this valley there would be that many people in need," Holiday Baskets Chairwoman Anne Blackwell said. "But there really are."

The Buddy Program senior program coordinator and case manager Sarah Evans, who works closely with the Holiday Baskets Program to help choose families in the most dire financial situations, said Aspen's extreme wealth hides the fact that many families are living in poverty.

The Buddy Program is one of nine local social-service agencies that helps the Holiday Baskets Program determine which families receive donated presents.

Evans said the Buddy Program's case managers select between 25 and 30 families they work with and act as a liaison to let the program know what the families hope to unwrap on Christmas morning.

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And in many cases, what is on people's Christmas lists are basic living necessities — bed sheets, jackets, socks and "lots of warm layers," Blackwell said.

Still, she said the program ensures that every child younger than 12 receives a toy in his or her basket.

"A mom might ask for pajamas and long underwear for her child, but we're going to make sure they also get a toy," Blackwell said.

Holiday Baskets also provides every family with a City Market gift card.

Blackwell estimated that the program spends more than $20,000 in City Market gift cards each year, which are funded by program grants and donations.

The program begins meetings with agencies in August to regroup and evaluate how its previous season went, Blackwell said.

In September, the program gives the agencies applications to indicate which families they should serve, Blackwell said.

From just before Thanksgiving until Dec. 11, the group "works nonstop" to get everything ready in time for the holidays, Blackwell said.

"We just work till the job gets done," Blackwell said, adding that volunteers are in and out of the Christ Episcopal Church of Aspen, where the program meets to wrap its baskets from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m.

Holiday Baskets serves families in need in Aspen, Snowmass, Basalt and, for the first time this year, Carbondale.

The program's expansion to Carbondale this year is to due to increased need in recent years tied with Aspen's tight housing market, Blackwell said.

"Our goal has always been to serve the neediest of people in need," Blackwell said. "And as the housing has gotten more and more difficult up here, people have had to move downvalley. If we wanted to meet our goal, we felt we had to go where they were going."

Blackwell said the program wishes it could reach families in Glenwood Springs, but it simply doesn't have the space or resources to do so.

Along with the help and support of its nine social-service agencies, Blackwell estimated that about 500 members of the community — including the local churches and synagogues, city of Aspen and Pitkin County employees, police, sheriff and fire departments, the Aspen Board of Realtors and the Aspen Chamber Resort Association — volunteer their time to the Holidays Baskets Program each year.

Elaine Bonds, who has volunteered at the program for 18-plus years, said she often hears people say the volunteer work is the highlight of their holiday season.

"It's not just about giving gifts, but it's about the spirit," Evans said.

"There are families who wouldn't have a single present under their tree. They just wouldn't," Blackwell said. "There's no money. They can barely pay their bills."

Blackwell added that "ou wouldn't believe" how many people are just sobbing when they arrive to the church to pick up their bags before Christmas.

erobbie@aspentimes.com

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