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United Way seeks angels to brighten families’ holiday season

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Every year, a Franklin family sits down for a Christmas tradition, passing around wrapping paper, scissors and tape for gifts for local families in need.

For the past three years, instead of buying gifts for each other, Becky and Charlie Canary and 18 of their family members buy presents for families in need for Christmas, as part of the United Way of Johnson County’s Christmas Angels program.

The program partners sponsors — businesses, groups and individual families — with families who need help to afford gifts for their children on Christmas.

This year, the organization has a total of 570 families with 1,451 children who need help for the holidays. As of this week, 239 families and 536 children do not have sponsors. The number of sponsors so far this year is 103, down from 113 at the same time last year.

Last year, 1,289 children were given gifts through the program. The number of families needing help has been increasing since the program started in 1999, as word has spread to more people. And each year the organization has to find more sponsors and donors to help the families in need, United Way executive director Nancy Lohr Plake said.

Sponsors buy gifts for the members of the family they are partnered with. Typically, a sponsor spends about $100 per child on items such as toys, clothing and winter gear, Plake said. The organization will accept new sponsors until Dec. 6, with a deadline to have the gifts delivered by Dec. 17.

If a family doesn’t get a sponsor, they can go to the Christmas Angels store. The store is filled with toys donated by individuals and local businesses, churches and other groups, Plake said. The organization hopes to find sponsors for as many of the remaining children as possible before the Dec. 17 deadline for gifts, so that each child can have a good Christmas, and each parent can provide a special holiday for their kids, she said.

The Canary family began their tradition of giving three years ago, when Becky Canary and her daughter realized that the adults in the family didn’t want or need gifts. Instead of giving each other presents or gift cards, they decided to start donating.

“We thought it was like we were just passing money around,” Becky Canary said. “Instead we could be giving it to people who really needed it.”

The family had been involved with the Christmas Angels program through church for years. Union Christian Church in Franklin sponsors four families a year, and Charlie Canary is the chairman of the committee that organizes the donations. For the first time this year, Becky Canary also will help students in her peer helper class at Whiteland Community High School give to the program. The students were awarded a grant of $400 to sponsor a family and buy toys for the store.

For the past three years, the Canary family also has signed up to sponsor one or two families in need.

Each family member, including the couple’s grown children and Charlie Canary’s brothers and sisters and their children, chip in to help buy presents for the family. They usually spend a few hundred dollars on gifts.

They make a list around Thanksgiving of the what they want to buy, based on information such as favorite colors and wish lists provided by the program, then set a Sunday when they can all go shopping together for the presents. After the shopping is done, they go back to a family member’s house to wrap the gifts and have dinner together.

The family likes to give back to those in need, and the times they spend together over wrapping paper and pizza slices allow them to be together, Charlie Canary said.

“We enjoy spending the day shopping, and we try to get something special for the families, something they wouldn’t usually get,” he said.

Sponsors have the choice whether to contact the families to find out about what kinds of gifts they should buy for the kids, Plake said. They also can choose to either deliver the presents in person or take them to United Way office to be delivered, she said.

Becky and Charlie Canary usually deliver the gifts themselves to the families they sponsor. One year, a mother had something for them: a crocheted tree ornament that she had made as a thank-you. Now, that ornament hangs on the tree of Charlie Canary’s father every year.

“She was giving us something back, too,” Becky Canary said.

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