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Phones ringing off the hook

Mail Tribune readers responded generously to people featured in this year’s Light One Candle series

More than Christmas carols, jingle bells or Santa’s belly laugh, one noise heralds the holidays at Community Works.

Phones ringing off the hook epitomize the sound of the season — timed every year to the organization’s Light One Candle feature. In just a few hours, said Executive Director Barbara Johnson, the Medford lobby brims with bags of toys, clothing, bedding and other gifts for the organization’s clients.

“We’ve had so much gift-giving,” said Johnson. “It’s just been mayhem.

“The doors had barely opened, and there were people coming in with bags of toys.”

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Ceri Doucette organizes gifts at Community Works in Medford.

Readers’ generosity in response to the Mail Tribune’s annual Light One Candle campaign benefits many more than the families profiled. Highlighting the needs of a 3-year-old girl recently homeless with her 18-year-old single mother, as well as 2- and 5-year-old girls who escaped domestic violence with their mom, Community Works received enough toys and warm-weather gear for dozens of other children.

“Last year was big,” says Johnson. “This year is even bigger.”

Hugely impacted by the project — in its 32nd year — are people who lost jobs and homes. They’re juggling work, school and child care. They’ve suffered health setbacks and struggle under the weight of medical bills.

Donations of even a few hundred dollars lift recipients’ burdens enough to catch up on rent and utilities, treat their kids to fun outings, prepare special meals and even take a few unpaid days off work for the holidays. More importantly, recipients say they no longer feel alone in their struggles and have renewed faith in humankind.

“They believe that this will ultimately alter their life and get them firmly on the right track and push them forward with hope,” said Rochelle Hopper, community health worker for Rogue Community Health, advocating for a 28-year-old couple whose 11-month-old daughter lacked food and clothes.

“They stated that they will never forget this time in their lives and the amazing people that contributed to it,” said Hopper.

Beyond monetary contributions, resources for navigating financial barriers and programs to assist with college tuition payments came from one reader on behalf of Hopper’s client. The father, who works full time and just finished his first college term, said he was empowered to continue his hard work and keep a positive attitude, said Hopper.

Joyful gratitude usually follows recipients’ shock, disbelief and amazement — reactions arising from past trauma, including abuse, neglect, homelessness and addiction. Often navigating their community’s fringes and living in the shadows, individuals are unaccustomed to being seen, heard, validated or supported before Light One Candle details their personal stories.

“She couldn’t believe how people who did not know her would want to give so much to her,” said Johnson, of the 18-year-old single mother whose own mother forced her and her infant daughter from home three years ago.

“The young mom starting crying when everything filled up her tiny living room.”

The tiny tree at the Medford apartment of a woman recovering from open-heart surgery was dwarfed by gifts for her and her two teens, who received sheets, blankets, a heating pad, slippers and sweatshirts. The mother and kids were overwhelmed with gratitude for the unexpected gifts, as well as gift cards, said Ellen Denninger, behavioral health specialist for Rogue Valley Council of Governments.

“The family was beaming with smiles and expressed anticipation for the holiday celebration,” said Denninger.

Some recipients can anticipate brighter futures, assisted with gifts of technology. A new laptop was pledged to Rebecca Lopez, a 22-year-old who experiences autism and is pursuing employment while dreaming of attending college.

A 17-year-old girl who works a full-time restaurant job to help support her younger siblings also received a new laptop, one of several that will be purchased for at-risk youth with donations in response to Light One Candle, said Adelaide Gadde, development manager for Rogue Valley Mentoring.

And a Nintendo Switch gaming system delights a family of seven split between extended family members while the parents try to secure suitable housing. Also receiving a $1,000 cash donation, said CASA Deputy Director Wenonoa Spivak, the family anticipates a holiday season that is “truly magical.”

Tune in to a special podcast conclusion for more details about donations to each Light One Candle profile at mailtribune.com/podcasts.