Shepherd Community Center

HOLIDAY STORE — Each year in December, Shepherd Community Center turns into a Christmas store filled with toys, backpacks and other items for the holidays. Selected families in need, including those from Harshman Middle School, can shop for free Christmas gifts for their children.

The holidays are a time for hope! And for several Harshman Middle School families, an ongoing community partnership is helping turn their hopes into reality.

Shepherd Community Center, a faith-based organization serving the east-side community, is providing families, including several from Harshman, with a little Christmas cheer — and gifts.

Each year, Shepherd transforms its facility into a “Christmas store” and allows a selected number of families in need to “shop” for Christmas gifts for their children.

Ashley Lough, Shepherd’s director of collaboration, isn’t sure of the exact number of years for this program. “The closest I can get is more than 20 years.” But for the past three to four years, Shepherd has worked with Harshman, a Title 1 middle school near the community center, to identify families who would be good candidates.

Upon invitation, parents or guardians visit the center to select gifts for each of the children and their families, giving these youths the opportunity to open presents on Christmas morning when they otherwise may not have been able to.

The relationship between Harshman and Shepherd has developed organically.

Because of their close proximity to each other, both the school and community center have served many of the same families and students over the years. In addition to the education students receive at Harshman, they also attend Shepherd’s afterschool programs, which include educational options such as tutoring.

Shepherd officials now spend time at Harshman, and relationships have developed to the point that they actively assist each other.

For example, when Shepherd ran into difficulty locating appropriate needy families for their Christmas shopping program this year, the staff turned to Harshman for help. What Shepherd didn’t know is that Carrie Murphy, Harshman’s parent involvement educator, had been working with the United Way on a similar program, but ran into difficulty getting families approved for various reasons.

When she mentioned it to Lough, they decided to work together to fulfill both of their needs.

“We don’t want spots to go to waste,” Murphy said. “If there are families in need, we want to utilize them.”

This year, 15 Harshman families will benefit from Shepherd’s Christmas shopping program, meaning 15 families in need will see their children getting Christmas gifts, which fits in with Shepherd’s faith-based mission.

“It’s a time of the year when families feel that need, so we want to fill that gap,” Lough said. “And we want to have as many resources as we can so they can be blessed as a family as well.”

Setting up shop for the store is a coordinated effort, requiring weeks of collecting donations of new toys and money. Shepherd volunteers purchase toys and clothes based on the needs and wants of the families. They then set up the building’s rooms as a “store,” and parents can explore and choose items for their children. Each child in the family, up to age 18, receives gifts, and each child also gets a pair of socks, underwear and gloves, and a hat.

Choosing the families can be complicated, though. Locating those families with a pronounced need can be tricky, but Lough and Murphy go through the necessary steps to find the most appropriate recipients. They approach families that request Christmas assistance from social workers, ask teachers to keep an eye out, and look at their food pantry list.

So far, they have been able to fill the majority of spots, and answer the wishes of many children.

Overall, the partnership has been more than successful. Murphy considers Shepherd a strong community partner for Harshman.

“They participate in so many ways,” Murphy said “If every school had a Shepherd, it would be such a blessing. They make a great impact.”