The giving season

Christmas Gift Drive Organizers Say It Can Be a Struggle to Serve Teens

It may be more fun to buy a shiny toy fire engine than earbuds, but Christmas gifts are important for older children, as well.

By Kim Doleatto December 14, 2021

Sad image of teen sitting alone by fireplace during holiday season.

Teens in need are sometimes forgotten during the holidays.

When people sign up to donate to holiday gift drives, they tend to have younger children in mind. It’s just more fun to buy a shiny toy fire engine than it is to buy earbuds for an older child.

By design, many Christmas gifting programs target age groups younger than 14. That’s what George O’Hannah learned when a gift program coordinator told him his 16-year-old son was out of luck this year. O’Hannah was told that the program sometimes received gift cards for his son's age group, but so few that they are quickly snapped up.

“It does seem harder to get the older children sponsored,"says Janet Carrillo, the social services manager at North Port Social Services. "One of the ‘adopters’ from an HOA this year said many of the residents in her community really enjoyed purchasing toys and games, the ‘happy’ items of the holidays, whereas many teens have items like shoes, clothes, personal hygiene and gift cards on their wish lists.” More than 410 children in need registered for the North Port Adopt-n-Shop program, and 71 of them were between 13 and 16 years old.

Volunteer who adopted 72 kids poses by truck load of gifts.

The Cypress Falls homeowner's association in North Port adopted Christmas wish lists for 72 kids this year. The association's representative, Sharon Howard, volunteered to deliver the donations.

Toys for Tots, a nationwide household name thanks to its Christmas gift drives, collected and distributed 166,485 toys to 15,099 children in Sarasota County last year. This year, the number of kids has increased by about 500, according to Jim Lamb, the Sarasota County Toys for Tots coordinator.

“For the 12- to 15-year-olds, we just don't have enough, says Lamb. "So we have to buy things. We’ve already spent $15,000 on closing the gaps." To participate in the program, a family in need goes online and requests toys by filling out a form. Requests are vetted and “we try to give a child at least one thing on their list,” says Lamb.

Toys for Tots was able to gift roughly 500 bikes to teens last year, but will be running short this year, with around 300. He says price can be an added challenge; bikes cost more than other gifts in general, and the bigger they are, the pricier they get. In addition to bikes, popular gifts for older children include makeup, gift cards, electronics, clothes, shaving kits and other personal hygiene products.

Volunteers with the Guardian Ad Litem holiday gift program, which serves area foster kids, see a similar shortage when it comes to the older foster children they serve.

“Gifts for kids ages 3-10 are the most popular,” says Toni Latortue, the circuit director for the Guardian Ad Litem Program in Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties. “Don’t get me wrong. We certainly appreciate all of the donations from our community and the generosity of the ‘adopters.’ But it remains a challenge to ensure that the older children have something to open on Christmas morning, as well."

Many teens also understand the financial strain of shopping for the holidays. O’Hannah’s son doesn't like to ask for anything. “He’s the type who doesn’t want to burden anyone,” says O’Hannah. O’Hannah was able to find a program that could help stoke that holiday excitement for his son on Christmas Day. It just took a little extra searching.

One hidden advantage of being a teen is knowing that the lack of gifts isn't because they’ve been consigned to Santa’s naughty list. Still, "no matter how old they are, don't forget that teens get excited about Christmas, too, and love to open something that morning," says Latortue. "The holidays can be harder on them because they may remember how it was with their families and can't be where they want to be on that day."

If you know someone in need or would like to donate or volunteer, click here for Toys for Tots, click here for the Guardian Ad Litem program or call (941) 429-3700 to reach North Port Social Services.

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