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Nonprofits: Help for kids sight unseen

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

The volunteers who give their time and money to St. Christopher’s Children never know the kids who are helped by their efforts.

They never learn their names and don’t get to talk to them or see their smiling faces when something as simple as a new shirt or a pair of shoes fills them with uncontainable joy.

“There are a lot of things that are unique about us and that’s one of them,” said Bob Pelletier, founder and president of the Pawleys Island area nonprofit.

However, it makes fundraising more of a challenge as potential donors can’t get a visual image of the impact the organization has.

“Other groups, they always have pictures of kids with smiles on their faces, or crying” if they want to show the need before the agency got involved. “That has a great impact on people,” Pelletier said. “That we can’t do this puts us at a marketing disadvantage. We have to rely on just getting our story out.”

Luckily for the 1,200 children St. Christopher’s has provided clothing, eyeglasses and orthodontic care for so far, the nonprofit is adept at doing that. After hearing Pelletier talk for a few minutes about the work the group does, something he’s very clearly dedicated to and passionate about, it’s hard to imagine anyone not being struck by the urge to pull out their checkbook.

If that doesn’t work, he’ll pull out some of the thank you cards the group has received from kids over the years, bearing declarations such as “these are the first new clothes I have ever owned.”

St. Christopher’s started just over four years ago as a two-person operation consisting of Pelletier and a friend, Mae Kaple, who has since passed away. The idea was born one particularly cold winter morning in 2007 when Pelletier saw a child walking along Waverly road without a coat.

“I said something’s just wrong here,” he said.

He was motivated to do something about it and he and Kaple started fundraising, obtaining nonprofit status soon after.

“We wanted to find the kids who really were being ignored by other networks,” Pelletier said.

Those children are generally referred by schools. Guidance counselors and school nurses alert St. Christopher’s when they see children with needs the family can’t meet. Shoppers then go out with a list and bring items to the school, where the staff gives them to the kids.

“They get very excited,” said Sharon Hughes, school nurse at Waccamaw Elementary. “They don’t get new clothing a lot and for a few of them this is the first time they’ve had clothes that weren’t worn by a sibling or bought used. “I think the thing that excites them the most are the new shoes. They’re just shiny and clean and they’re usually bright colors, and that’s the thing they hone in on the most.”

One of the children St. Christopher’s was called in to shop for had shoes so worn out he used duct tape to hold them together. Other kids have been sent to school with the tips of their shoes cut off because they had been outgrown and that was the only way they would fit.

“If the children in school are in that bad of need, can you imagine the one’s back at home,” Pelletier asked. St. Christopher’s helps them too, often buying for younger siblings as well as school children, with the approval of parents.

The group also provides for kids referred through other nonprofits, including AMI Kids and Citizens Against Spouse Abuse, which operates a shelter for abused women and their children. Like kids in the foster care system, kids often arrive in the care of those agencies with only the clothes they’re wearing.

Clothing, shoes and coats are the primary items provided by St. Christopher’s. Hughes recalled a little boy they provided clothing for about a month ago.

“We opened his bag to look at what he had and he was very excited about the underwear because he didn’t have any and said he hadn’t had underwear to wear in months,” she said. “It’s such a load off our minds knowing St. Christopher’s is there to help and if a child is truly in need, there’s somebody we can turn to and they’ll step in.”

St. Christopher’s added orthodontic and vision care to its services after schools reported that was an area of need not being met.

“We’ve sent in at least 75 kids to have braces put on their teeth and have teeth extracted to give them a better chance in life,” Pelletier said. “It’s a pretty terrible thing when kids walk around with a hand in front of their mouth to speak to you or a kid has buck teeth so bad they don’t even want to go to school.”

As adults, he added, that kind of dental issue is bound to influence job prospects.

The nonprofit still has 26 children on a waiting list for braces. Even with steep discounts and donated services from local doctors (some never send a bill), putting braces on kids’ teeth comes with a hefty bill.

“Some have to be treated for three or four years,” Pelletier said. “We’ve had calls recently about a kid whose bottom teeth are up in the palate and it makes it hard for him to chew. It’s a very, very heartbreaking situation, but I can only send the kids when I have the funding.”

Despite the struggling economy, St. Christopher’s has managed to increase its fundraising every year. Last year it raised $119,000. Pelletier hopes this year’s total will be closer to $125,000. That’s partially thanks to a new event it introduced last winter: a dinner dance that raised $27,000.

“It was a big surprise and it let us do an awful lot,” Pelletier said.

The event will return Feb. 4, hopefully with even better results.

“Our biggest challenge is raising money, but when there’s a crisis, something always seems to happen. The Good Lord provides and somewhere out there, there is someone who is willing to give us a few dollars.”

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