A Weld County youth social service organization brings holiday cheer and toys to children who have experienced neglect and abuse each year.
Life Stories Child & Family Advocacy is an organization whose goal is to advocate for children who have been abused or neglected in Weld County through several programs. Staff members are working to help these children have their voices heard in court and find safe and permanent homes, according to Cheryl Brown, business and development manager for Life Stories.
Life Stories’ Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program is filled with volunteers who are appointed by a judge to an open addictions neglect case. The volunteers work closely with the children and report to the court with recommendations on what should happen with that child.
Life Stories Child Advocacy Centers staff members interview children who have been victims of violent crime or who have witnessed violent crime. Information from interviews is forwarded to the courts to the district attorney to help prosecute cases. The center provides additional support and resources for the child and non-offending family members.
During the holidays, the youth service organization offers additional support to victims and their non-offending families through the “Santa’s Workshop”.
Through donations and toy drives, the Life Stories office is transformed into a Santa’s Workshop filled with toys for children of all ages. The workshop is open internally to all CASA volunteers from Dec. 14-21, according to Brown.
CASA volunteers come and “shop” for the children they serve, as well as their siblings. Volunteers can choose a few toys for each child in a family, wrap them up and give them away as gifts for Christmas.
“A lot of kids who are in the CASA program or in foster care, and a lot of the families that we serve…they need a little help over the holidays,” Brown said. “You don’t really know what their Christmases will be like. A lot of the houses they’re in, they can’t really afford a lot of Christmas presents.
A total of 250 children will receive gifts from Santa’s Workshop this holiday season.
Life Stories chief executive Gwen Schooley said Santa’s Workshop is a great way for children who have been neglected and abused to have a childhood. With the holidays approaching, receiving gifts is just one way to restore “normalcy” to children’s lives, she explained.
“Children with a smile, children with a childhood… all of these are really crucial for the self-esteem and well-being of children,” Schooley said. “The kids we serve are probably already feeling different from other kids and so anything we can do to help them feel more normal, to be excited about the holidays and all of that is really crucial.”
Throughout Weld County, several businesses and organizations have helped Life Stories obtain toys for the many children served by volunteers. Companies that have contributed to Santa’s Workshop through toy drives this year include:
- Windsor Community Church
- Second childhood doll and miniature club
- The human bean
- Kodak Alaris
- Cardinal Community Academy
- High Plains Bank
- basalite concrete
- State Farm Office in Loveland
- Fort Lupton KM Cup
A secondary school student also took a drive to Greeley Central Secondary School.
“We’ve had a huge outpouring from the community this year and we’re grateful for that,” Brown said.
Due to multiple locations giving away toys, Brown said Santa’s Workshop was well stocked. However, if anyone wants to donate, Life Stories accepts $25 gift cards for teens.
“The community likes to give,” Brown said. “So it’s one of our favorite times of the year because the community might not be able to make a big donation to our organization or something, but they can buy a toy and knowing that they are making a difference in the life of the child. It’s both for the community and for the children, I think it’s kind of a win-win.
In total, Brown said the agency has 150 CASA volunteers, but they are always looking for more. Anyone in the community over the age of 21 who is passionate about helping children can volunteer.
Additionally, Child Advocacy Center staff contact families, who may need extra help, during the holidays to see if they would like toys for their children. And sometimes, if parents, guardians or families come for an interview close to Christmas, the staff will allow them to shop at the workshop for their children.
As for other volunteer and donation opportunities, the organization is always looking for volunteers for the event throughout the year. As well as donations of individually wrapped snacks for the Child Advocacy Center.
Life Stories is funded by grants, but monetary donations are also accepted, Brown said.
Brown worked with Life Stories for nine years behind the scenes in fundraising and marketing. Although she has never worked in person with children, she thanks her staff and volunteers for the incredible work they do.
“My colleagues and the volunteers we work with are so passionate and every day they make a difference,” Brown said. “I hear stories of the successes that happen when kids are just heard and have a voice and how much it means to them to have someone by their side.
“It’s very difficult to talk about it and nobody really wants to hear about it. And so the reason I work here is to…bring it out of the shadows so kids feel comfortable coming forward and disclosing and getting the help they need.
In the 2020-2021 fiscal year, the CASA program served 253 children and youth through volunteers and the Fort Lupton and Greeley Child Advocacy Centers served 419 children.
“We have a lot of success stories, and it’s great to see kids go from victims to survivors,” Brown said.