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At “Santa’s Workshop,” homeless youth pick out gifts for themselves and family

December 22, 2018

Christmas came early for Omaha’s homeless and nearly homeless youths on Thursday.

Teens and young adults crowded into Youth Emergency Services at 26th and Harney Streets for the agency’s annual Santa’s Workshop, an event that gives young people a chance to pick out Christmas presents for themselves, family and friends from an array of donated items.

“The young people we serve don’t have the money to buy gifts for themselves or others,” said Mary Fraser Meints, executive director of Youth Emergency Services. “It’s not just about receiving, it’s about the dignity they feel when they can give back to their friends and family.

“They’re good kids; they just need some help right now.”

Tables in a basement room of the facility at 2679 Farnam St. were filled with clothes, tools, kitchen supplies, hand warmers, hats, gloves, toiletries, backpacks, towels, earphones, books, art supplies, blankets, coats, baby clothes and a plethora of other items.

Armando Vazquez, 21, attended the event for the third year. He picked out a blanket, a towel, socks, a first-aid kit, body care products, headphones and makeup.

“It’s important,” he said. “They get stuff they need, or if they want, they can get gifts for family.”

Organizers expected about 100 people this year.

Youth Emergency Services has been holding a Christmas gift event for the past 20 years, and the list of donors has grown from a few churches to dozens of organizations and people.

“This is probably the most we’ve ever received,” said Maren Larsen, a mentor and volunteer coordinator. “Many people are donating and not giving their name.”

Students from Central Michigan University helped operate the event. Each year, students in the university’s Alternative Breaks program make the 11-hour drive to Omaha to help out.

Once shoppers finished picking their gifts, Central Michigan volunteers handed them a raffle ticket. Upstairs, in the group’s main space, donated gift cards were raffled off Thursday evening.

“It’s my favorite event of the year,” said Cindy Goodin, director of program services, who has been with the organization since before the event started. “A lot of kids come back who are doing better and we haven’t seen here in a while.”

Goodin said attendance has doubled over the past 20 years, which she attributes to a growing need in the community and a growing awareness of the event.

Fortunately, she said, donations have grown too. But it always needs more. The organization keeps a wish list on Amazon at amzn.to/2EBbPIW.

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