Christmas gifts unwrap joy, and the plight of Beaufort County's workforce

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comDecember 14, 2013 

Shown at the annual Christmas gift-wrapping party for Operation Santa at Colleton River Plantation are, from left, Family Promise of Beaufort County case manager Kate Oresic, Colleton River member and Family Promise board member David Fulcher, Lakeisha Bennett and her baby Ivy Atkins, and Family Promise executive director Elliott Brown.

Lakeisha Bennett of Bluffton needed some elves last Christmas.

Actually, she needed more than that. She was a single mom with twins, a toddler and a baby on the way. She had left what she called an unhealthy relationship, stepping into the unknown with the children, a car and $160. That didn't go far in a local motel.

"I was stuck," she said. "I was just stuck."

A motel worker told her about Family Promise of Beaufort County, which provides shelter to homeless families through a network of 13 churches and synagogues. They each host up to four families at a time for one week, four times a year. Another 22 congregations provide everything but the facility.

When Lakeisha walked into the church on that first night, she found her name and her children's names on the door. Four beds with pillows were set up in what was probably a Sunday school room. She walked in scared, but for the first time in a long time, Lakeisha fell asleep without worry.

As Christmas approached, she was concerned about her 12-year-old twin boys.

"I could see it written in their faces," she said. "The disappointment. The not knowing. I had a talk with them, and I let them know that Christmas would still mean the same things it did the year before. It's taking time to be with family. It's a time to be thankful because it is the day Jesus was born. And IF there were no gifts this Christmas, it was not for the long haul. I told them this may be your current situation, but it doesn't have to be your forever situation."

She was stunned to discover Family Promise had Christmas gifts for her children. She was speechless when one turned out to be My Pal Scout, exactly what she wanted for her child.

"It moved my spirit," she said.

'OUR OWN'

Last week, Lakeisha held her baby girl, Ivy Atkins, as she thanked the elves who helped her do what she felt she should do: provide for her children.

She addressed a room full of 60 volunteers furiously wrapping 2,000 packages for 310 local children -- about 50 of them in the Family Promise program. She was in the Nicklaus Clubhouse ballroom at Colleton River Plantation Club in greater Bluffton, where members have contributed more than $43,000 this year for what they call Operation Santa Claus.

Now in its 14th year, and operating as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization under the auspices of the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry, Operation Santa helps a number of other local social services programs year-round. In addition to money and gift-wrapping, members contribute about 1,500 volunteer hours per year running Operation Santa.

"Since 2010, we have really focused on meeting basic needs," said executive committee member Marsha Murphy.

It works with nonprofits and school social workers to zero in on needs for food, clothing, books, school supplies, meals for the elderly and Christmas gifts for people near Colleton River.

"We need to help our own," Murphy said.

In Beaufort County -- one of South Carolina's wealthiest -- our own includes one in five children living in poverty, and a homeless population estimated to be 4,000 to 5,000 people, including 350 school children.

WORKERS' CHALLENGE

Lakeisha was educated up North, has years of management experience and is a hard worker. But in this community, she rides a disturbing wave that Family Promise executive director Elliott Brown and other social services leaders are all too familiar with.

Full-time jobs are hard to come by. And even a full-time job at minimum wage doesn't produce enough income for a one-bedroom apartment. As a result, workers take on two or even three jobs. They don't see their children, and they can't afford to be sick.

Part-time jobs require flexibility to work revolving hours. And that requires daycare at all hours of day and night, yet there is a dearth of child care available at night and on weekends.

Jobs are seasonal. Hours get cut in the winter, but the bills stay the same.

Transportation costs eat away at the rent money.

Family Promise kept Lakeisha's family housed for about six months, followed by a year of after-care. When Lakeisha left, she took a year's lease on an apartment for $1,000 per month, but then her hours got cut. She got a new job closer to home and found a different apartment for $819 per month, still a big squeeze with her $11-per-hour salary as a part-time assistant manager in a retail store.

She's thankful for the job and happy in the work, but would like to be full-time.

In thanking the Operation Santa elves last week, Lakeisha said they are her inspiration.

She now serves on the board of Family Promise. She visits families starting the program to assure them they can get over the hump if they keep pushing.

And Lakeisha has become an elf in her own way. She gives a portion of her salary to Family Promise.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

Related content:

Family Promise of Beaufort County

Beaufort County Human Services Alliance

Colleton River Plantation Club

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