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Soroptimist’s Tree of Hope keeping holidays bright for those in need on Whidbey Island

Volunteers check every present twice for the Soroptimist International of Oak Harbor Tree of Hope program, which helped more than 950 kids this year. - Sara Hansen/Whidbey News-Times
Volunteers check every present twice for the Soroptimist International of Oak Harbor Tree of Hope program, which helped more than 950 kids this year.
— image credit: Sara Hansen/Whidbey News-Times

Soroptimist International of Oak Harbor’s Tree of Hope is helping local families again this year.

The program has more than 950 children enrolled and, at one point, only had about 500 of them sponsored.

The community since rallied to fill the remaining sponsorships.

“We’re still getting last-minute sponsors who want to help out,” said Rose Freitas, Tree of Hope co-chairwoman.

“That’s how great this community is.”

This year, the program sponsored more than 400 families, which is the most the Soroptimists have ever done, according to Cheri English, Tree of Hope co-chairwoman.

To participate, a sponsor tells organizers how many children they would like to help, and then receives a list with children’s names and their wish lists. Then, the sponsor can buy what they deem is appropriate, then wrap and label each gift.

Because sponsors actually go and pick out the gifts for specific children, it makes it more personal, English said.

Freitas said she even uses the name of the child to picture what would make the best fit for the child.

Freitas and English have co-chaired the program for eight years — six of which have been with the Soroptimists. They started chairing the program with Venture Club.

They brought the program to Soroptimist when the Venture Club disbanded.

“We’ve been married for the last eight years,” Freitas said jokingly.

“But we don’t fight as much,” English added.

This is the seventh year they’ve been able to keep gifts at the Church of Christ in Oak Harbor. The church has provided them with the headquarters they need for the week leading up to pick-up time.

Before the church was available, English and Freitas would have only one or two days to set everything up, and all the presents were stored all over the place.

“It’s changed to a format that’s smoother and easier,” English said. “It’s streamlined.”

From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 21, more than 400 families came to church to receive gifts.

Freitas said she wanted to provide a fun, holiday experience. With the space at the church, they had ample room to set up an area in which children can make ornaments.

In addition to the presents they picked up, English said they are also wanted entire families to receive a game that they could play together.

“It teaches kids how to win and to lose, and it’s the interaction they get with the family,” English said.

Tree of Hope works with other programs on the island, such as Toys for Tots, to make sure all the children are getting what they need over the holidays. English said they give each other assistance and make efforts not to duplicate services that have already been provided.

And if there are extra toys, they are stored for next time.

“Nothing leaves the island,” English said.

Even though most think of the Tree of Hope as a December event, the planning officially starts during the end of July or early August.

“With something this big, you have to start early,” English said.

With the help of the Department of Social and Health Services, they prepare applications to be mailed out for the program. Employees from the department send out the prepared envelopes to families they think need assistance.

About 1,900 applications were mailed in September.

A lot of times kids are asking for things they need, such as warm clothes, or even a bed. Whidbey Furniture donated a bed so a kid could have one to sleep on one year, English said.

If people don’t need assistance, but have in the past, they usually respond to the application with a thank-you note, English said.

“They’ll say: ‘Thank you for what you’ve done, but we don’t need it this year,’” Freitas said.

Others will come back and donate if they are able, English said.

“It comes full circle,” English said.

 

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