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Here are ways Houstonians can give back for Thanksgiving

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 11/19/2020 By Allison Bagley, Correspondent
Anjali Forber-Pratt sitting on a couch: Customers at the Houston Furniture Bank © Courtesy Houston Furniture Bank's "No Kid On The Floor" Bedding Drive

Customers at the Houston Furniture Bank

When Cynthia Stielow arrives to work, she always starts her day by looking through the newest batch of donated decorated paper lunch sacks on her desk.

For the approximately 5,700 meals that Kids’ Meals delivers each day to area children age 6 and under, the organization relies on volunteers to contribute paper lunch sacks decorated with stickers, drawings and well wishes. The bags help each meal get distributed with “just a little bit of extra love in there,” Stielow says.

Distribution routes will increase when schools are closed for Thanksgiving and winter break because Kids’ Meals will also hand bags to the recipients’ older siblings who are home.

Sacks are mailed in from across the country. This month, Stielow says a stack arrived stamped with a 10-month-old’s hand print. Each bag said, “Hi from Noah,” whose mother had dipped his hand in paint and transferred his tiny fingers.

Another set of 80 were adorned with the Texas flag, and the child artist had added a fact about the Lone Star State on each one.

Bags come covered with glitter, mazes and knock jokes or painted to be used as puppets.

The children on the route are accustomed to the colorful bags, she says. “If we hand them a plain bag, they’ll ask, ‘Do you have any decorated ones?’”

“If you were in a place where you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, to get a meal in a decorated bag is like getting a hug from somebody and a little bit of encouragement. Someone cares about you and what you’re going through.”

Kids 8 and up can volunteer with their families to stuff bags at Kids’ Meals or complete the task virtually. The organization also needs help dropping off turkeys and grocery kits on Thanksgiving week. kidsmealsinc.org/take-action/holiday-giving/

About fifty percent of Kids’ Meals’ food donations come from the Houston Food Bank, which allows volunteers age 6 and older to work socially-distanced shifts to clean and sort non-perishable food and pack boxes. houstonfoodbank.org/ways-to-give/give-time

Teens 16 and older can register to volunteer at the 42nd Annual Thanksgiving Super Feast, held at the George R. Brown Convention Center on Thanksgiving Day. Event organizer City Wide Club is currently accepting donations of frozen turkeys, chickens and hams and canned goods. citywideclub.com

And, Generation Serve needs families to volunteer to make “friendly neighbor” phone calls to seniors during the holidays.

The seniors on the call list are those who receive Meals on Wheels. Generation Serve’s Caren Sweetland says the calls will be especially impactful in a year where many of them won’t be visited by relatives due to health concerns.

Generation Serve has virtual opportunities for kids to decorate holiday cards for the same seniors and to put together activity kits for kids served by the non-profit Big Love Cancer Care.

“When it comes to educating our kids… that we have means of giving back, that’s especially felt during the holiday season,” parents tell Sweetland. “It’s a good reminder of being grateful for our blessings.” generationservehtx.org

The second annual “No Kids On The Floor” bedding drive will be even bigger this year, says Claire Jarvis of the Houston Furniture Bank, thanks to more retail partners.

Through Dec. 17, families can drop off new bedding — twin bedding is requested — at Ashley Home Store, Mattress for Less and several other retail locations.

They can also order bedding online to be delivered directly.

At last year’s bedding drive, Jarvis says supporters she spoke to were surprised at the organization’s estimation that 300,000 Houston children sleep on the floor each night.

In the pandemic, the furniture bank has seen a spike in visits, she says, and one reason is that domestic violence has increased and displaced families.

The bedding drive “is an accessible way to make a meaningful difference in the lives of children,” she says.

“I have had the privilege of being with the families when they are picking out the bedding,” she says. “They get very emotional, especially around the holidays, to be able to provide something special for their kids.”

“These are things that a lot of people take for granted. What could be simpler and make everybody feel better than (providing for someone) a cozy place to sleep?” houstonfurniturebank.org

Allison Bagley is a Houston-based writer.

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