News: Christmas Across Maine
Story by Sgt. Angela Parady
AUGUSTA, Maine - Sometimes I feel like one of Santa’s elves when I drive up to someone’s house, he said. I knock on the door of a family and I see the smiles on the faces of these kids when they see the gifts in my arms. I know their Christmas will be a little bit brighter because of what we do.
These little elves are part of the Maine Army National Guard Family Assistance Service Center, civilians and military who work together to support service members throughout Maine. The program is called Christmas across Maine, and it tries to help ease some of the stress of the holidays for struggling military families.
Master Sgt. Barbara Claudel, state family program director for the Maine Army National Guard, said the program started 14 years ago, as a little tree in the lobby at Camp Keyes.
“There were little ornaments on the tree that said ‘girl, age 5, likes Barbie’s, and things like that,” she said. “Most of it was our employees that would come in and take one off. We would adopt three or four families to help out during the season. Then the war started, and everyone wanted to help, and to be truthful, we all needed more help.”
Mark Cater is the family assistance center services coordinator for the Maine National Guard. “Christmas Across Maine is a need- based program connecting current military families who are struggling or have come under bad times, and people in our communities have stepped up to help them,” he said. “It is kind of their way of saying thank you for keeping us free, and for all the sacrifices and struggles they go through so that others don’t have to.”
The program has grown, and the community has grown to meet the changing demands. Last year they had 110 families, this year they are just shy of 90 families.
Service members can be nominated for the program by their units, or they can contact the Family Assistance Service Center directly.
“I prefer the units to nominate the soldiers, because it puts the ownership back on the leadership,” said Cater, who lives in Gardiner. “The squad leaders, the platoon leaders, they should know whether they have a soldier who is struggling. But, just because leadership nominates a soldier, doesn’t mean they will be sponsored. I contact the soldier and check with them. If they say no, we stop the process. If the soldier wants to go through with it, knowing it is a confidential program, they we will go through with it. There are a lot of them that are very proud, and don’t want the help, even if they do need it. Those that take the help are always very appreciative.”
The families are known as family number one, family number two and so on, and then matched to those who have indicated an interest in a sponsership. The sponsor will do the shopping and the wrapping, and then someone from the center will collect the gifts and deliver them to the family.
“The family assistance center is just the middle man,” said Claudel. “I think that’s the key to it. We just match people up."
The Maine National Guard likes to take care of people and families within their community, but sometimes there just aren’t enough resources. Luckily for Mainers, there is a very supportive non-military community that has always stepped up to the challenge, said Claudel. For those who are struggling, sometimes the most important thing is to just know someone is looking out for them. Many people are still not aware of the services that are available to them through their units, their command, and through veteran’s groups.
“The gifts are nice,” she continued. “But to me, its more the fact that someone has their back. Someone has stood up for them when they have needed it.”
Both Claudel and Cater said that a lot of the people they have helped out in the past have turned around to be sponsors. For some, it was just a bad year, usually someone lost a job, but when they were able to get back on their feet, they turned around to help someone else.
“They pay it forward,” said Claudel. “There are some people who can’t get out of that cycle, but for others, they come out of it okay. Then, they are a better person afterwards, able to help people out by telling them, look I was there too. It takes a strong person to step up and say, I need help. But then they get the help and they are better and they can help others too. The Guard, the community just takes care of us in so many ways.”
“Many of the sponsors want to say thank you for everything the military does,” said Cater. “This is really their way of doing that. Everyone needs help at some point in their life, no matter who you are.”
The Family Assistance program couldn’t do what they do without the outpouring of support they get from the community. Claudel remembers when she first took the position, the outpouring of support that came flowing in after the beginning of the war in Iraq. People told her that support would end, but it hasn’t. It never stopped.
“Maine is so gracious with the community that comes out to help,” said Claudel. “It is not just the big businesses, it’s the everyday people that come in and say, I just want to do something for the military. And some of these people could probably use the help themselves. But the community continues to rise to the job. People have not stopped with their support, it may come in different ways and different waves, but the people have not stopped caring about what our military is doing. People are good; there really are good people out there.”