By Anika Rychner
Director of Self-Sufficiency

There are many gift programs across the metro area that help families in need experience joy during the holiday season. Since 1971, 360 Communities Armful of Love has drawn amazing and dedicated volunteers as well as generous family sponsors who ensure families can have gifts and meals during the holidays. If you have never experienced Armful of Love, you may wonder how this program continues to thrive. It has become a tradition for our sponsors and volunteers, and an important avenue for bringing the community together. Starting in mid-October, thousands of people sign up for the program to either give or receive, and it becomes clear why Armful of Love is so powerful.

Jolaine and family

Jolaine and Jason Haider are Armful of Love sponsors. Here they are pictured with daughters, Kraigan and Kaidance (the baby).

The impact of this work to match families with sponsors goes beyond gifts and a holiday meal. Recipients, sponsors and volunteers share in a circle of giving and receiving with their neighbors that promotes the idea of an inclusive community, where everyone matters. One of the meanings of our name, 360 Communities, comes from the concept that receiving inspires giving and builds stronger communities. Jolaine Haider, a former recipient of the program as a child, embodies this ideal. Today, Jolaine and her husband are Armful of Love sponsors. Recently she touched our hearts when she wrote to express what this program has meant to her and her family:

Jolaine AOL Christmas

8-year-old Jolaine opened her Armful of Love gifts.

[We] are anxiously awaiting information on the family we get to sponsor for the holidays. Growing up in a single parent home with two siblings I remember being recipients of Armful of Love. I remember being so grateful and also wondering why another family would take the time and energy out of their own lives to give holiday gifts to another family … I don’t specifically remember any of the gifts that I received; what I do remember is the feeling of being cared about.

That feeling has left a lasting impression and given me motivation to do what I can to pass that feeling on to another family. I felt cared about from my mom who let us know that the holidays were about more than material things, but still wanted us to be able to open some gifts. I felt cared about by the people who took the time to sign up, read our lists, shop, wrap and make sure the gifts found their way to us. The positive feelings that were left on my heart were more than the material gifts that I ever received.Jolaine pajamas

Now that I have my own family I have a new appreciation for the holidays from the perspective of a parent. To see the delight in a child’s face as they are opening a gift is such a special experience.  I want to be able to give that experience to other parents. I also want my children to grow up with our own traditions and the understanding that holidays are about a lot more than getting gifts. We will help others not out of pity, but to make them feel special. I am hoping they enjoy the gifts that they receive, but most importantly I am hoping this “pay it forward” will give the family we sponsor the knowledge that they are cared about in our community.

Armful of Love works because of the generous hearts of volunteers and sponsors like Jolaine, who know that giving back through this program gives families a sense of inclusion – that they belong to a community and their happiness is important to other people they don’t know.

Armful of Love also serves as an introduction for families to all of the programs and services 360 Communities has to offer. When we interview Armful of Love families, we are opening the door to conversations about safety, hunger, school success and self-sufficiency. Because of our partnership with Dakota County, we can also offer on-site support for medical insurance enrollment and housing support.

The families we serve are grateful and aware of the sacrifice others are willing to make to ensure their children can open gifts and have a special holiday meal. Many ask for ways they can thank their sponsors for their generosity and caring. One mother recently withdrew her family from the program when her husband found a job, saying, “We would like another family to take our place because we can now afford a Christmas for our kids this year.”

Armful of Love will serve about 1,000 families again this year. We have wrapped up our family eligibility interviews and have matched all of our families with sponsors, but you can still support Armful of Love with gift cards or by donating to 360 Communities. You too can help a family feel special and included during the holidays by giving. Your caring will inspire others and strengthen the culture of giving that is so prevalent throughout Dakota County.