Many of us grow up with a child-like excitement of the many gifts and surprises the Christmas season could hold for us. As we enter adulthood, we begin to realize the purpose and joy that can be found in giving to others. If the city has caught onto anything through the years, especially within this season, it’s that it is better to give than to receive.
Photography provided by: Florida Baptist Children’s Homes, Parker Street Ministries, and VISTE
During the holidays, everyone seems a little happier, smiles are a little brighter, and generosity abounds. Schools host Thanksgiving food drives, kids scribble holiday greetings on scraps of paper in red and green crayon, and families navigate bustling crowds so they can cross items off wish-lists. We often toss a few coins into a collection bucket on the way out the door or donate a few dollars to a meal program in the grocery store check-out line, but how aware are we of what local charities are doing for our community during the holidays? Here are three local nonprofits that are tirelessly putting your donations to good use during this season of giving.
For the past 113 years, Florida Baptist Children’s Homes (FBCH) has been making a difference for children and families in need across the state of Florida and around the world. Last year alone, FBCH and their associated organizations, The Porch light and Orphan’s Heart, impacted a total of 171,273 children through their Christ-centered services. Last year, because of those who came beside them in support, they were able to provide 3 million meals to children and individuals in need. This year, they anticipate providing between 5-6 million meals.
In Florida, FBCH welcomes hope into the lives of children and individuals at 24 ministry sites in 20 cities. Internationally, hope is offered for children and individuals at more than 30 ministry sites in 14 countries through Orphan’s Heart. In 2016, they served 950 children in foster care.
Dr. Jerry Haag, the president of Florida Baptist Children’s Homes, The Porch Light, and Orphan’s Heart, says, “The holidays provide a prime opportunity to meet the needs of our communities and share hope. We want to be available with open arms for children and families in need, whether it’s in Florida or Uganda, providing meals and unique experiences, because the Christmas season calls for joy and love.”
Florida Baptist Children’s Homes provide Thanksgiving and Christmas meals, as well as Christmas gifts, to children and families in need in Polk County and the surrounding areas. If you’d like to donate food items or gifts, all donations are accepted at the Harold Clark Simmons Compassion Center located at 1015 Sikes Boulevard in Lakeland. Holiday meal baskets consist of a turkey, a box of stuffing, boxes of cornbread mix, boxed mashed potatoes, canned gravy or two gravy mix packages, boxes of macaroni and cheese, canned cranberry sauce, canned vegetable items, canned sweet potatoes or yams, and a pumpkin or sweet potato pie. If you’re donating gifts, all new toys for school-aged children, as well as clothes for infants and toddlers are welcomed.
As a way to keep the holiday giving spirit going year-round, Florida Baptist Children’s Homes encourages individuals and families to consider child sponsorship as a unique way to provide a Christmas gift. Through their international missions program, Orphan’s Heart, they offer a monthly sponsorship that provides children and families access to life-changing resources like food, clothes, school supplies, medicine, and educational opportunities. Each year during the Christmas season, sponsors have the opportunity to go above and beyond their normal monthly sponsorship with an invitation to give an additional $20. Ministry partners use the additional funds to provide Christmas gifts and host Christmas parties for the children.
Each year, FBCH also welcomes the community through their doors for a Christmas Open House on campuses across the state of Florida. This offers a chance for community members to see what FBCH has to offer. In Lakeland, the Open House will be held at their campus. You’re invited to enjoy pictures with Santa, Christmas cookie decorating, live music, cottage tours, crafts for kids, hay rides, and the tradition of sharing fresh-squeezed orange juice provided by the residential children.
Parker Street Ministries (PSM) is a non-profit 501c3 organization committed to Gospel-centered community development beginning in Lakeland’s Parker Street neighborhood. PSM’s vision is the culmination of a 20-plus-year commitment to the spiritual and physical well-being of the adults and children living in the Parker Street community. It represents the recommendations of the Board of Trustees and core staff, four of whom have lived in the neighborhood for a combined total of 40 years.
For Thanksgiving, PSM puts on a Fall Festival. The actual Thanksgiving holiday is focused on relationships in the neighborhood. It’s all about staff and neighborhood families eating together and playing outside.
For Christmas, PSM hosts a Neighborhood Christmas Store the second and third weekend of every December. They set up their Family Life Center gym as a fully functioning store with brand-new toys marked down to a quarter of their retail cost, where parents can enjoy picking out and providing gifts for their children. There is also a store where kids can shop for their family members. The hope is that relationships will be built and families strengthened. Last year, over 400 volunteers from over 50 different organizations gave nearly 1,000 hours and 2,500 gifts so that 800 neighbors could experience both the love of Christ and the love of the Lakeland community.
If you’re looking for ways to participate, Parker Street Ministries would be grateful for donations of money for ministry staff to purchase toys, store volunteers (with the store opening on December 9, 15, and 16), and donations of Christmas décor to make the store look festive and fabulous. You can drop off toys or mail checks to: Parker Street Ministries, 719 Massachusetts Avenue, Lakeland, FL, 33801. You can also call 863.682.4544 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to get information about volunteering. To view a list of gift ideas for the Christmas Store, visit parkerstreetministries.org/ministries/christmasstore.
Volunteers in Service to the Elderly (VISTE) was founded in Lakeland in 1983 by a dozen volunteers who saw a need to serve people in the community of Lakeland who were no longer able to drive their cars. These elderly clients were unable to get to and from doctor appointments or even to the grocery store, so VISTE’s first program was transportation-based and served about 30 clients. From there, they gathered more and more volunteers, built up more programs, and today have close to 1,000 volunteers serving 4,000 clients. VISTE exists to enable the frail elderly to remain safely and independently in their own homes.
After collecting food donations and prepping meals, VISTE has volunteers deliver Thanksgiving dinner to over 1,500 elderly clients in the community who may otherwise spend the holiday alone, or would not prepare a meal for themselves. At one point, VISTE almost had to turn away volunteers for their Thanksgiving delivery program. They wound up giving one meal to each of the approximately 1,600 volunteer drivers who showed up on Thanksgiving for deliveries.
VISTE distributes 400 personal-care boxes filled with toiletries, cleaning supplies, and other household necessities twice a year — once in June and once in December. These boxes may not seem like much, but they often mean that a client can afford the cost of a life-saving prescription instead of worrying about how to make ends meet. For December boxes, VISTE requests that people contribute items such as lap quilts or blankets, and cards, in addition to personal care and household items.
Their largest Christmas program is an annual trip to the Imperial Symphony Orchestra. After volunteers are matched with clients, an evening of getting all dolled up and going out on the town ensues. Volunteers pick up 100 clients from their homes and make their first stop at Florida Southern College for a sit-down dinner. From there, they travel to Youkey Theater to enjoy the Imperial Symphony Orchestra’s annual holiday concert. The evening out is a source of joy for clients who have difficulty driving at night or who may not be able to drive at all.
VISTE also partners with local businesses and individuals to provide gifts to local clients who are part of their Senior Angel Tree. About 150 clients are selected based on need, their Christmas list is collected, and gifts are purchased, wrapped, and dropped off at VISTE the week before Christmas. Volunteers are needed to play Santa and deliver the gifts.
For the first time, this year VISTE is including donations of baked goods, cookies, and holiday treats to be delivered with holiday hot meals.
If you’re interested in volunteering for the Imperial Symphony Orchestra trip, delivering meals, or volunteering in general, please contact Ashley Metts Miller at email@example.com or by calling 863.284.0828.
During this busy season, take a moment to add an item to your holiday to-do list. Make Lakeland a brighter place by giving up a little of your time, and make this Christmas one that neighbors, friends, and community members in need will always remember.