CASA of Travis County, Family Eldercare and Junior League of Austin are providing for the area’s youth, senior and disabled populations in need to ensure every Austinite has a happy holiday.
By Rachel Rascoe, Photos by Annie Ray
In addition to choosing gifts for friends and family, December can provide the perfect time to fulfill holiday wishes for the greater Austin community. Through charitable events this month, Court Appointed Special Advocates of Travis County, Family Eldercare and Junior League of Austin respectively serve children who have been abused or neglected, elderly and disabled individuals, and underprivileged youth. Austin Woman spoke to the women helping run these annually expanding philanthropic programs. Here, they share more about the three organizations’ history and how to help out this holiday season.
CASA OF TRAVIS COUNTY: Holiday Toy Drive
Each year, those involved with CASA of Travis County watch the latest kid-centric gift craze pass through their office. Director of Communications Callie Langford recalls previous occasions of Frozen, Batman and Peppa Pig toy mania. This year, requests for Moana-inspired gifts are flooding in.
Rather than a grab bag of charity toys, CASA of Travis County’s Holiday Toy Drive selections reflect the specific gift requests of Austin children who have been abused or neglected. Launched in 1985, CASA of Travis County matches specially trained community volunteers with kids in the county’s overburdened child-welfare system. Prior to the holidays, advocates ask the more than 1,750 children served by the nonprofit to pick out their perfect present.
“It provides a sense of normalcy for kids in care,” Langford says. “We make sure they know someone cares about them and is watching out for them over the holiday season, which can be really lonely for a kid that’s far from their family. It’s a very mission-focused toy drive.”
To fulfill wishes, Austin community members can sign up to shop for gifts throughout November. Participants are asked to commit to helping a minimum of 10 children, and this beloved volunteer option typically fills up quickly.
Into early December, CASA of Travis County also accepts $30 Target and Walmart gift cards, which account for the group’s most popular wish requests. Langford says gift cards allow children to have an empowering shopping experience, which may not typically be available to them in foster care and other difficult living situations. Extra gift cards allow the organization to fulfill needs that arise throughout the year, including child-care supplies like diapers and cribs.
“CASA is here for a child’s best interests,” Langford shares. “That’s all we represent. [Our volunteers] are assigned to only one case, so they really know the child or sibling group better than anyone else in the room because they’re focused on that one family.”
Langford recalls one child who requested a sombrero and Tejano music CDs for his holiday gift. She says participants often go the extra mile in shopping for personalized gifts inspired by the kids’ wish lists. The donated gifts are delivered to children during their monthly meetings with their CASA volunteer. Each volunteer is committed to spending an average of 15 to 20 hours a month advocating for a child throughout the lifetime of that child’s court case. Last year, the nonprofit had more than 700 active volunteer advocates, 86 percent of which were women.
“This is one of the most empowering and impactful volunteer opportunities you’ll find because here in Travis County, you have an official role in the court system,” Langford adds. “We’re exposing [advocates] to systems that they would never have had access to and parts of the community they may not have been aware of before.”
Alongside in-person mentorship, CASA volunteer advocates are granted access to the child’s family, teachers, doctors, therapists and caregivers. This allows them to make informed recommendations to the judge as to what is best for the child.
The nonprofit is currently assigned to 80 percent of Child Protective Services cases in Travis County. As one of the top 10 CASA programs in the nation, the Austin organization strives to one day provide a volunteer advocate for every community child in need.
“We are pushing out very innovative practices and trying things that other counties are interested in,” says Langford of her organization’s model. “We are helping thousands of kids and making their lives better, but our volunteers are also learning so much. We’re really impressed by the level of engagement and action of volunteers here in Austin. They are truly amazing, heroic people.”
HOW TO GIVE:
• Donate $30 Target and Walmart gift cards by Dec. 13 for children to choose their own gifts. Drop off or mail gift cards to the CASA of Travis County offices at 7600 Chevy Chase Drive, suite 200, 78752.
• Make a monetary donation online anytime to support CASA of Travis County.
• Get more info at casatravis.org
This is one of the most empowering and impactful volunteer opportunities you’ll find.
FAMILY ELDERCARE: Holiday Giving Drive
The senior population of Austin is on the rise. According to the Brookings Institution, by 2040, more than half a million adults 65 and older will live in Central Texas, making up about one-fifth the population.
With a focus on this rapidly growing demographic, local nonprofit Family Eldercare provides essential life services for elders and adults with disabilities in Central Texas. This plays out in a broad range of services, including counseling, in-home care and financial management.
“We’re experts in the journey of aging,” says Brittany Baize, director of development and communications for Family Eldercare. “We help clients maintain independence and stability wherever they are on that path. Part of what makes our model work is we’re empowering people, and they are participating in their own success.”
From nearly the beginning, Family Eldercare, which was founded in 1982, has also coordinated an annual Holiday Giving Drive to provide gifts for clients. Case managers work with clients to create wish lists, which are then distributed to volunteers throughout November. Last year, the program fulfilled about 500 wishes for both disabled and elderly Central Texans.
To help out with the holiday program, volunteers can sign up to buy a gift, purchase a gift and make the accompanying delivery or just help make deliveries throughout the Austin area. As an annual holiday tradition, local churches and businesses partner with Family Eldercare to fulfill larger client wishes. Monetary donations for the program can also be made online.
“Most of our clients are living on a fixed income, and the majority of that is covering their rent and services,” Baize explains. “These are opportunities where basic needs can really bring cheer and make sure folks feel remembered around the holidays.”
The wish lists often include simple requests like slippers, socks or H-E-B gift cards. Last year, one elderly woman just wanted pickles. In some cases, sponsors have gone above and beyond, like one who purchased a bike for a young disabled client.
Baize recalls an older man in hospice who wanted to hear the music of his childhood. A creative sponsor collaborated with his case manager to supply an iPod preloaded with all the client’s favorite albums.
“Family Eldercare serves so many folks where we are their family,” Baize adds. “Especially this time of year, aging can be a very isolated experience as you lose mobility or capacity. We want to make sure all clients are feeling a sense of community and connection.”
She considers the December event a kickoff to “a year of fulfillment” for Family Eldercare clients. Many Austinites come to the nonprofit for help during a crisis, whether they have been victims of financial fraud or are unable to find housing. Once those basic needs are met, the organization continues to help with long-term planning for a stable, satisfying life.
To help sustain these services, Family Eldercare relies on year-round volunteers from the Austin community in various roles. Money monitors oversee clients’ financial transactions, and guardian advocates provide companionship through regular visits. Both programs have waiting lists of clients and are in need of more volunteers.
“Central Texas has a real opportunity to be a model for what it looks like to age successfully,” Baize says. “It’s amazing to hear clients tell us that their level of stress has decreased. Folks often come to us just surviving, and to see them thriving is incredible.”
HOW TO GIVE:
• Sign up online to sponsor a senior or disabled individual by purchasing gifts from their wish lists.
• Volunteers are also needed to wrap, transport and deliver gifts.
• Make a monetary donation online. Every $35 fulfills a wish.
• Get more info at familyeldercare.org
Especially this time of year, aging can be a very isolated experience as you lose mobility or capacity.
JUNIOR LEAGUE OF AUSTIN: Coats for Kids
Thirty minutes at 30 degrees: That’s how long a winter coat needs to keep a child warm to meet the standards for Junior League of Austin’s Coats for Kids drive, an annual event hosted by the local women’s service organization. By distributing coats at no cost, the program empowers young Austinites in need to navigate the winter season safely and comfortably.
“If you’re standing, waiting for the bus, exposed to the elements, you can get sick and then you miss school,” explains Deanna Schobey, chair of the Coats for Kids program. “[A coat] becomes a tool of education beyond just an item of clothing. It’s so much bigger than that.”
Coats for Kids is the second-largest coat-distribution drive in the United States, having contributed more than 900,000 coats to children in need in the Austin community during the program’s 32-year run.
The holiday event began following a light-bulb moment from the founder of Jack Brown Cleaners. The local business collects and cleans new and gently used winter coats for the program at all its locations, accepting drop-offs from early November through Dec. 6.
Dec. 8 at the Palmer Events Center, the local Junior League plans to give out about 30,000 coats to the children of Central Texas. At the distribution-day event, volunteers greet families and verify their economic needs. Families are then invited to peruse the spanning selection of colorful coats to suit every youth’s style and size.
“We rack it up like a store,” Schobey says. “The kid is getting to try on coats and choose, which is so important. I want to make everyone feel like they’re empowered and for no one to feel like they’re less than.”
To help gather the winter essentials, Austinites can host coat drives throughout November among their friends, schools or offices. Coats for Kids partners with local TV affiliate KVUE, as well as local radio station KVET-FM, which announces coat-drive-competition winners live in early December. In addition to dropping off coats, monetary donations can be made online to support the purchase of new garments.
Junior League of Austin depends on thousands of local volunteers to help sort coats and set up ahead of the event, including those who volunteer during the youth sorting night Dec. 4. Volunteers are also needed on distribution day, including bilingual helpers.
“If a coat costs $30 and you have more than one child, that can eat into your electricity and food bills,” Schobey explains. “This is something we can tangibly do and help.”
After choosing their coats, families enter the conjoining Warm Bodies and Healthy Hearts Community Fair. There, more than 25 local nonprofits and agencies offer everything from flu shots and dental screenings to bike helmets and Austin Public Library cards. Last year, about 50 kids left with brand-new prescription glasses.
To reach Austinites who don’t make it to the central event, Junior League of Austin launched a satellite coat- distribution hub in the Del Valle Independent School District. Another location at Guerrero Thompson Elementary School allows the organization to serve North Austin-area students. After connecting with schools through the Coats for Kids program, the philanthropic group has also developed programs to provide shoes and weekend meals to area elementary students.
“We like to say we’re work gloves not white gloves,” adds Schobey of her Austin chapter, which is the fifth-largest Junior League. “I’ve found all of these really capable and intelligent women who are just driven to make a difference for Austin’s most vulnerable populations.”
HOW TO GIVE:
• Drop off a new or gently used warm winter coat at any Jack Brown Cleaners location through Dec. 6.
• Make a monetary donation online. Every $20 supports a new coat.
• Register online to volunteer with Coats for Kids at the Palmer Events Center. Sorting week runs Dec. 4 through 7, and distribution day is Dec. 8.
• Get more info at jlaustin.org
I want to make everyone feel like they’re empowered and for no one to feel like they’re less than.