Adopt-a-Family Holiday program referrals increase, families asking for household items

The United Way of Johnson & Washington Counties has seen a significant increase in families, with reasons including job loss, reduced work hours, and financial difficulties because of COVID-19.

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Charles Peckman

Trisha Smith (left,) and Katie Knight of United Way of Johnson and Washington Counties pose for a portrait outside of their Coralville office on Friday, March 29, 2019. The Johnson and Washington County United Way office, which is turning 100 this year, is planning a series of events aimed at garnering donations and spreading awareness for what the organization does.

Claire Benson, News Reporter


The United Way of Johnson & Washington Counties Adopt-a-Family Holiday program is seeing an unprecedented number of referred families, with many suffering from financial loss because of COVID-19 and requiring basic household items.

With an increased sense of uncertainty regarding job and financial situations amid the pandemic, many Iowans have been forced to turn to their community for assistance.

President and CEO of the program Katie Knight said that, as of Dec. 4, 74 families have been referred to the program — a significant increase from the 44 families adopted last year.

The Adopt-a-Family Holiday program, now in its fifth year, allows social workers from various nonprofit and service organizations in Johnson and Washington Counties to refer families in need. Community members then have the opportunity to adopt these families and provide them with items included on their holiday wish list.

United Way of Johnson & Washington Counties Vice President for Impact and Engagement Patti Fields said she sees what a family’s current situation looks like when she receives its referrals. She said the information describing families’ financial situations has been rather repetitive this year.

“I really have really seen over and over people who may have already experienced challenges throughout the year, but the pandemic just amplified it,” Fields said. “So, if they were having a hard time meeting all the basic needs of the family, maybe there’s been a gap in employment, they lost their job and had to find another job and it may not have paid what they had before, there’s just been so many challenges for families this year that it just makes everything else harder.”

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Fields said there has been a diverse pool of items on families’ wish lists, but most items include basic household necessities.

“We have a lot of requests that come in and a family is just identifying that they’re struggling to [obtain] the basic food items, but also things like laundry detergent, toilet tissue, shower curtains, laundry baskets, things like that,” Fields said. “Things that you may not necessarily think when you think of a holiday wish list, but these are what the families are needing.”

Knight said adopted families can have some financial stress relieved and focus their income on essential payments such as food and rent. Non-essential items that families may need or want can then be purchased by the adoptive family.

“It lets the adults, the parents, be able to focus what money they may have from unemployment or what have you, for the things that they need to do which is paying their bills, and paying rent, and having food and household supplies on hand,” Knight said. “They’re able to cover those costs, and then we’re able to help with the gifts that the children are asking for, so we do get individualized gifts and bliss for the children, so that’s something they want.”

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Big Brothers Big Sisters of Johnson County Program Director Chanel Meredith said this program is incredibly helpful for families within the community, especially families she has personally worked with.

Meredith said, with COVID-19 causing financial difficulties for many local families, there’s been an influx of community members asking her how they can help others during this time. She said the Adopt-a-Family Holiday program provides these individuals with the opportunity to give back.

“I think this is just such a tangible program and partnership we have going on that people can help in this way, and kind of alleviate some stress of all that these families have been going through,” Meredith said.

Meredith said the majority of families involved in the Adopt-a-Family Holiday program need financial support year-round, not just during the holiday season. Meredith said she encourages community members to provide this assistance throughout the year, especially during COVID-19.

“I think, especially with COVID-19 being in our world right now, I just think that the help is necessary for them throughout the year,” Meredith said. “I think a lot of people think of it during the holidays, which is great, but ongoing support would be great.”

Knight said she hopes there will be additional financial assistance provided to families from the federal government, something she thinks will allow families to better recover from difficulties brought by COVID-19 and other difficulties from before the pandemic.

“In the last stimulus, a lot of the families used the funds for purchasing food, and we wouldn’t necessarily think that, and in utilities and rent, and even some folks were trying to pay off some debt or credit card that they had accumulated,” Knight said. “So those are really significant needs and, hopefully, together we’re going to be able to help people get through COVID-19 and come out on the other side, become more whole again, and have their normal life back.”

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