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A new way to help the needy in a holiday campaign steeped in tradition

A new way to help the needy in a holiday campaign steeped in tradition

From the 100 Neediest Cases: Recent campaigns series

St. Louis loves its traditions, and holiday giving is no exception.

For 95 years, a staple of generosity this time of year has been the 100 Neediest Cases campaign, a program run by the United Way of Greater St. Louis in partnership with the Post-Dispatch.

As in years past, the newspaper will feature 100 cases over the life of the campaign, which begins this weekend and runs through the end of the year. But thousands of other families across the region have been identified as needing help and may also be adopted.

New this year is the option for those who want to participate to start a fundraising page and share it through social media, encouraging friends, family and co-workers to donate. It’s similar to other online crowdsourcing efforts such as GoFundMe, but 100 percent of donations go to the families in the 100 Neediest Cases campaign, and the funds are tax-deductible.

“It’s an additional way and an easy way for people who are passionate about giving to encourage others to help local families,” said Erin Smith, director of communications for United Way. Details on how to set up a fundraising page can be found at 100neediestcases.org. Those who set up a fundraising page can either select a case for adoption or raise money for the overall campaign. Only monetary donations can be accepted through this method of giving.

Read the families' stories

The 60 United Way member agencies participating in this year’s campaign submitted 10,900 cases highlighting the need for help across the region. Case managers have put together a small biography of each person in need along with a list of items they would like. Common requests include clothes, bedding, gift cards for food and utility assistance. The needy include families, the elderly, single parents, and children being cared for by grandparents on fixed incomes. There are victims of gun violence, house fires and serious medical issues, all wiped out financially by mounting bills.

Last year, 1,067 cases were adopted, including the 100 featured in the Post-Dispatch. All other cases received at least $90 thanks to cash donations of $1.3 million. That does not take into account all the gifts and donated items that make up a large component of the campaign.

Neighbors pitch in

The Tower Grove Heights Neighborhood Association plans to adopt two families this year, as it has the past 13 years.

“I’ve said every year that I get more out of it than the (adopted) families do,” said Ellen Wilson, who started the neighborhood tradition. “It just feels good to do good.”

The foyer of Wilson’s house becomes the drop-off point for the gifts. She hosts a wrapping party and then delivers the gifts to Grace Hill Patch Neighborhood Center, a United Way partner that submits cases annually. The neighborhood selected the center as its annual recipient because it also is in south St. Louis.

As the 100 Neediest Cases campaign approaches, a notice to help is placed in the Tower Grove Heights Neighborhood’s quarterly newsletter, and fliers are distributed door-to-door. Some neighbors stockpile items they find on sale throughout the year such as toiletries and laundry detergent so they can make a contribution once the families for adoption are selected. The annual tradition of helping those in need has made an already active neighborhood even more involved.

“We’ve gotten to know people in the neighborhood we would not have gotten to know,” Wilson said. On average, each adopted family gets $250 in gift cards and at least a few hundred dollars to pay utility bills, she said. That’s on top of making sure each family member receives at least six presents.

Over the years, the association may focus on a particular demographic such as single dads or grandparents. But in all cases, the neighbors have one goal: Help those stuck in a bad moment get back on track.

“The hope is that a little push will get them on their way again,” Wilson said.

Wilson said a survey a few years ago asked neighbors their thoughts on various activities held each year such as house tours and block parties. The idea was to see what should continue and what had run its course.

The 100 Neediest Cases campaign got the highest approval rating of all events sponsored by the neighborhood association, she said.

“That moved me to tears,” Wilson said.

Tip jar tradition

Pooling resources is a common way to adopt a family for the holidays. Along with neighborhood groups, church congregations, families and co-workers also team up to help.

At St. Louis Pizza and Wings in south St. Louis County, money that lands in the tip jar next to the register goes to charity. The employee of the month gets to decide which cause gets the money — except for the months of October, November and December. Those months are earmarked for the 100 Neediest Cases.

“This will be our eighth year, and our customers, God love them, know about the tip jar and we’ve had some drop $50 or $100,” said restaurant owner Angela Hines.

Hines and her crew are adopting two families this year. In previous years, they have taken on three cases, but they feel like they can really provide a special holiday if they focus on two families, she said. Four years ago, the little jar brought in $1,500, doubled by a match from Hines. Each year Hines puts her own money toward the effort as a way to challenge customers to participate and to show her employees, most of them teenagers, that giving is at the heart of the holiday season.

The employees volunteer their time to go shopping at Walmart, and Hines makes it a game by dividing them into teams. She awards prizes to the group that gets the most items off the family wish list and to the ones who get back to the pizza and wing shop the fastest.

Hines said it never gets old watching teenagers get excited about helping others. Buying bicycles and superhero figurines for small children. Wrapping gifts the best they can. And laughing as they sit on the restaurant floor eating pizza and listening to Christmas music.

“It warms my heart.”

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