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Creating a Happy Holiday Season for Youth in Residential Care

Many youth who complete treatment and step down from One Hope United’s Residential programs have fond memories of their time at their OHU home. Of all the experiences and memories they create at One Hope United, former clients share that the holiday season is their favorite and happiest time. In this special guest blog, Melissa Y. M. Webster, M.S., LCPC, Executive Director of Residential and Day School Programs, and Sarah Tunning, LMHC, CWCM, Executive Director of Florida Programs, share how they and their teams create a happy holiday season for the youth in their care. 

Melissa Y. M. Webster, M.S., LCPC, Executive Director of Residential Programs 

When we hear from former clients from our Centralia and Lake Villa Residential programs in Illinois, it is usually around the holidays. They love to reminisce about activities, gifts they’ve received, and the big holiday party. 

Some children and youth love to drive through our communities with staff and look at the holiday lights. Our youth also enjoy decorating their bedrooms and our communal areas, as well as crafting homemade ornaments to hang on our Christmas tree. Throughout the holiday season, we drink hot chocolate, and bake cookies and other holiday treats. Children and youth help staff bake special desserts, trying new recipes and learning new skills along the way. 

And the gifts! Gifts are an undeniable part of the holidays, and for many of our youth, it is the best holiday they have ever had. Youth are encouraged to make wish lists, and we work with generous individuals and organizations in our communities to make those wishes come true. Making a holiday wish list is challenging for some youth, as some have not had special holidays in the past. If I could give any gift to the generous people who donate gifts, it would be to see the faces and hear the joy that our youth express when they open their gifts. 

Our holiday parties vary from site to site. Many of the young boys in our care enjoy fun holiday games and like to win prizes. Our girls talk to Santa and Mrs. Claus about their wishes. The Christmas story is read, usually by a youth who volunteers for the honor. Our oldest young men prepare their own holiday dinner, with coaching and guidance from staff. The food is the highlight of the celebration, as it is for most families.  

Some youth visit families as a part of the season. Our youth who do not have traditional families celebrate with us. We do our best to make sure those who remain with us create special holiday memories. 

One Hope United’s Residential staff, many of whom leave their families to celebrate with our children, talk about the joy our youth express. Staff members share that so many youth are genuinely appreciative and astounded at the gifts they receive. It makes leaving their own children behind for part of that day easier, knowing what special memories they help create. 

Sarah Tunning, LMHC, CWCM, Executive Director of Florida Programs 

This year, at Hope House, our Florida Residential program where four boys receive individualized treatment and care in a home-based setting, our holiday season kicked off on December 8. One Hope United volunteers decorated the three-story home while our boys and house parents went out for a nice seafood dinner. When the boys returned, they found decorative snowmen, a Christmas tree, and special holiday mugs with hot chocolate kits. Santa also visited the boys that evening, and chatted with them about their wish lists. 

One of the most exciting and unique things about the approach we take at Hope House is our emphasis on family connections. In many situations, dually involved youth – youth who are involved with both the juvenile justice and child welfare systems, like those we serve at Hope House – face many restrictions that prevent them from visiting with family members. Even before Hope House opened, these family relationships have been a priority for us. If it is possible for the youth we serve to have positive relationships with their families, we will do everything we can to support these relationships.

Experiences like celebrating the holidays, going on trips, seeing family members, even going to the grocery store…these events, from the memorable ones to the day-to-day outings, often go away for youth when they enter group care. Providing these experiences creates normalcy for our youth, and normalcy helps relieve anxiety and depression as youth settle into their new routines at Hope House. 

The boys we serve have been through severe trauma, and most of their previous holiday experiences were not positive. At Hope House, we aim to change how they feel about the holiday season – helping them feel hope for the future, in an environment where they are surrounded by people who care about them. 

Want to make a difference for the youth we serve? Make a donation this holiday season.

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