Gift program eases student-parent stress

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Susan Warfield started choking up as she described the struggles some student-parents face during the holiday season.

Already strapped for money, those University of Minnesota students have to worry whether they’ll be able to provide gifts for their family, said Warfield, director of the Student Parent HELP Center.

“These students are working to receive a degree from the University while taking care of a child,” she said. “They are doing it alone.”

To help them, the University’s Adopt a Family holiday assistance program teams up with donors each holiday season to provide gifts to students in need and their families.

When the program first began in the mid-1990s, the school was unaware of its high demand for student-parent assistance during the holidays, said Parent Program Director Marjorie Savage, who helped create the tradition.

“We decided to start this program because we identified a need and knew we could maybe help these families,” she said. “This program really does make December a tolerable month for these families.”

The program has provided gifts for more than 530 families in the past eight years with the help of anonymous donations from University and other community members, Warfield said.

The program has received an overwhelming response from many people within and outside the University, she said.

“We have people call us in September so they can make sure that they have a family to adopt,” Warfield said. “People love being a part of this.”

The Association of Higher Education Parent and Family Program Professionals awarded the University program with a “most creative institutional initiative award” this year, Savage said.

Student families can seek help from other community holiday programs, Warfield said, but that can often increase their already heavy stress load.

Many of those programs require a tedious application process that evaluates the parent’s financial situation, Warfield said, which demands a lot of time that student-parents might not have.

And sometimes their status as a student weakens their application, she said.

“When they see students attend the University, they believe they are better off than other low-income families,” Warfield said. “To go out and apply for all of those programs, try and finish up finals and be a parent to their child is impossible.”

The Salvation Army hosts a “Toy Shop” program annually that provides gifts for families in need, and though it’s not specific to student-parents, college families can take part in the program, said Julie Bergen, spokeswoman for the organization.

The University’s program is easily accessible for students because it’s located on campus, where students can pick up the presents without hassle, Warfield said.

“We kid that we are like elves this time of the year,” she said. “We organize everything and even run the presents out to families so they don’t have to leave their warm car.”

And though the program sometimes gives student-parents everything on their “humble wish lists,” Warfield said, they are often more than just appreciative of the gifts.

“They cry just at the thought of having other strangers care about them enough to do this,” Warfield said. “I have been a social worker for 30 years, and I have never seen anything like it.”

On the SPHC website, one student-parent who participated in the program noted that the Christmas donations had been extremely helpful and some of the only presents that person’s children received.

This year’s presents currently sit piled up in Appleby Hall, waiting to be delivered to eagerly awaiting families.

“After they pick up their presents, all they have to do is watch how happy their child is,” Warfield said.

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