When I worked for a foster care agency, it used to break my heart that the teens were often lost in the system. And as the person who organized the holiday projects, it fell to me to figure out how to solicit donations appropriate for their age group.
This is not easy. Most programs are about toys and toys are for younger kids. We would often receive items like portable CD players or handheld poker games for the older youth -- one of which was very outdated and the other very inappropriate. I started two programs that really helped -- adopting an entire family including the foster parents and a gift card drive for the teens. I carried them with me when I moved to another agency that also served formerly homeless families.
And here's what would happen. We'd ask everyone to list items they wanted as gifts. Most of the young people would list things like "sheets" or "towels" or "underwear." I cannot tell you how much time I would invest trying to find out what size sheets, what color they liked and sharing that with donors to make it as festive as we could. But I can tell you that they would rarely ask for something extravagant because they lacked so many basics even with all of the help from the organization. Often, I would ask the donor to consider a gift card because youth should get to pick out their own underwear. Or sheets, right?
That's why gift cards are such great gifts. Not only is it a present, but it creates an opportunity to for the young person to select something that they want. And that's important to any youth, right? I know its fun to shop and play Santa, but you can find ways to do that with some creative thinking.
Given the LGBTQ youth account for anywhere from 20-40 percent of the homeless youth population, there is an additional layer of stress for them to celebrate the holidays and be themselves.
Lyndsey Sickler has worked with LGBTQ youth for over 15 years and is currently the Chair of Pittsburgh's LGBTQ Community Center, the GLCC.
The holidays can be a challenging time of year for people who are marginalized by society as well as by our families and social structures. What sorts of concerns have the youth you've been working with brought up this time of year?
There are several concerns I have for the youth I serve through my work with the GLCC and Persad. Our homeless youth are often walking through their shoes and have many of their clothing items stolen or they get ruined from general wear and tear during the holiday seasons there are increased instances of depression and anxiety due to either the increased need to be closeted around family members who don't know that they are LGBT or because they lack family support entirely are living in the shelters or on the streets and feel isolated and alone.
Often we think of donating to toy programs for younger children, most of which don't go all the way up to age 18. How can the community support youth and teens during the holidays?
The most helpful things utilitarian are items like, blankets, coats, sweaters and socks, gloves, hats and scarves as well as things like deodorant, hand warmers, feet warmers, tissues, hand sanitizer etc. Non utilitarian items would include universal chargers, books of all kinds, art supplies like markers and crayons and paints, notebooks, phone minutes for track phones and cricket phones, gift cards of various types.
What percentage of young people do you think have nowhere to spend the holidays? Where do they actually go in your city?
For every hundred youth we serve I think that 20 youth or 20 percent would be a fair estimate for youth who have nowhere to go, or nowhere they can go where they can celebrate the holidays and still be who they are.
Is focusing on one specific day or days (holidays) useful and constructive? Or does it take away from the every day challenges youth experience?
Any and all help and focus is welcome as long as an eye is turned to the fact that the need for help, support and advocacy surpasses one day or one time a year.
Does your organization celebrate the holidays with your youth programs? Do you accept donations of food or gifts?
We do try to do something for the youth around holiday celebrations. an example is this year we are partnering with Judah fellowship to do a pre-turkey day dinner for the youth we serve on Wed. Nov. 27th. We do accept donations of food and or gifts for the young adults we serve, 25 and under.
If I wanted my team at work or my book club to embrace a holiday project that will have the most impact on youth in Pittsburgh, what would you suggest?
You could take a collection of coats, blankets and winter gear, non-perishable food items and or hygiene products, or ask people to donate to funds and get gift cards from Giant Eagle to be distributed to youth.
To give you some perspective, when I ran holiday projects -- the parents (mom and/or dad) would usually also ask for sheets and cleaning supplies. Imagine receiving cleaning supplies as your holiday gift and how happy that would make you because you can't buy those items with SNAP (food stamps)? That's humility and gratitude.
When you are selecting your holiday giving projects, please think about this for a minute. Find a program that works with youth and teens and donate gift cards. But please think it through -- retailers that are accessible by bus, affordable and youth friendly. A $25 gift card to Macy's is not particularly useful if you don't have extra cash to buy a $40 top and not every young person finds bargain shopping to be a "gift" -- but a retailer like Old Navy or The Gap or Target, those all work. Drug stores are very useful -- Rite Aid, Walgreens, CVS. A Starbucks or other coffeehouse gift card is often a really nice treat. If you are considering food locations, Subway is usually easy to access and has nutritious options.
Find a local youth program and ask them how you can provide support during the holidays. The Gay and Lesbian Community Center in Pittsburgh is one such program.