Although it's just August with temperatures still in the 90s and thoughts of December far away, the Operation Christmas Douglas County Elf Squad began planning this year's event in February. "A group of church leaders came together and had several meetings during the first part of this year," Operation Christmas founder Judge Beau McClain explained. "We wanted to learn from the experience of the first two years and make 2017 even better for our receiving families and volunteers."
One major change allows school system families who receive free and reduced price meals to register for Operation Christmas by computer. On the first day of school, each student received a copy of the registration links with the letter that goes home. There are multiple links on the School Nutrition Homepage, the School Nutrition Free and Reduced Page, and the SchoolCafeOnline Application Page. Managers also set up kiosks at all open houses for parents to apply online for Operation Christmas. Paper registration forms are also available throughout the school system.
"During our planning meetings, school system officials explained that most parents register online for free and reduced meals either at a school computer or through other means," Judge McClain stated. "This process gives us a far greater ability to manage the information." In addition, the registration includes parent addresses and phone numbers. "Most of our churches would like to contact parents during the week prior to December 9 to make sure the parents have directions and to share what their experience will be like when they visit. Some of the churches are providing free breakfast, activities and other services; some allow parents to 'shop' for their children's gifts and some even do gift wrapping."
More than 1,000 children have already registered for Operation Christmas during the first three weeks of school, and the Elf Squad hopes to complete registrations by September 29. "We realize that most people aren't thinking about Christmas right now," Judge McClain continued, "but to distribute gifts to 10,000 children or more we have to work on it at some level year round. We're asking our families to please go ahead and register as soon as possible and appreciate the help of the Douglas County Sentinel in getting the word out. Knowing as soon as possible how many children we are serving and what age groups is very helpful."
Registration is also occurring at the Douglas County Health Department, but in paper format. All children including infants receiving services at the Health Department from WIC to Children's Medical Care who are not registering through the School System with older siblings may also receive from Operation Christmas.
"We really encourage parents who receive services at the Health Department to register as soon as possible," Judge McClain said. "This year, we expect to receive a large donation of infant and toddler toys and some parents will also receive disposable diapers."
Other improvements and strategic partnerships are in the works for Operation Christmas 2017, which will be announced at a later date. "We are going to reduce the number of distribution venues this year to focus on churches and a smaller number of public buildings," Judge McClain said. "This change will mean a higher volume of recipients at each location and enhance the volunteer experience. We had more than 1,000 volunteers at more than 50 venues last year, but the large number of venues meant that many volunteers didn't have as much to do as we would like. With a smaller number of venues, I think our volunteers will be kept busy and not have that experience again."
The Elf Squad has also set a goal of providing multiple presents to receiving children. "What we are able to give depends on what is donated, and there are always less donations for the older children and more for the younger children. Our first year at the Fire Department venue downtown, the volume of donations for young children was so large that we provided an entire Christmas and then some for many families. We tend to use our cash donations to purchase gifts for older kids because less is donated for them at our collection boxes. However, this year we think that many children will receive more than one gift."
Operation Christmas may be contacted via its Facebook page, @TheElfSquad. Collection boxes will begin to appear all over Douglas County when the Christmas season begins, but Books-A-Million at Arbor Place Mall has continued its third year of partnership and is already conducting a new book drive at its store. The public can also expect to see The Elf Squad in action with Santa's Red Pickup Truck at September Saturdays at the courthouse on the 23rd and 30th and also at the Trunk or Treat on October 29.