Shannon and Stan Kuder began to truly explore the meaning of Christmas about 10 years ago when her parents asked that they be given no gifts. Instead, the parents said, they would prefer that the Kuder family donate to a good cause in their name. Eventually the Kuders found the Adopt-A-Family program at the Salvation Army.
Soon, the entire family--including two teen-age sons and a young daughter--got caught up in the idea of giving rather than receiving at Christmas and decided to forgo gifts to one another. For six years now they have devoted their efforts to adopted families that they never meet.
"We love it," says Shannon Kuder. "We wrap all the gifts and sign the cards from Santa Claus. It was especially fun when we got a family where the kids were really little. My kids got excited looking at all the tiny clothes and toys. One year, back when they were so popular, I won a Cabbage Patch doll in a drawing. We had a 9-year-old girl in our family that year and I was able to give her the doll."
The Kuders, from Encinitas, are particularly glad to be able to adopt a family this year because they themselves went through a time of economic uncertainty. The company Stan Kuder worked for went out of business, and he lost his job. After a brief stint in a temporary position, however, he found permanent employment. Shannon Kuder, a full-time homemaker, says the experience made her even more sympathetic to the plight of the needy.
During the holidays, the prospect of going without is acutely felt by many. There are many people in North County in need of help--military families, the homeless, migrant workers, battered women and children. It is estimated that about 14% of North County families subsist on incomes of $10,000 a year or less.
Most of the 36,000 Marines normally stationed at Camp Pendleton have been sent to Saudi Arabia, leaving many Marine families in the area to face the holidays with only one parent at home.
"Many of those Marines had second jobs," said the Rev. Michel Gagnon of the Parish Church at Mission San Luis Rey. "Now they're overseas and that second income is not coming in. Some families can't make the payments on their houses. The families are hurting."
Nightly shelter space accommodates only about 20% of the homeless in North County, according to United Way figures. Soup kitchens struggle to feed the large number of people who show up each day.
"We're serving 600 to 700 meals a week," says Janet Sucro of the Faith and Love Ministries in Vista, one of a half-dozen daily meal programs in North County for low-income and homeless people. "Each day we get 15 to 20 children. About 35% are homeless, though we're getting more migrant workers and single parents who just can't make it," said Sucro.
The needs of migrant and field workers is more intense at this time of the year when the weather is colder and work may be scarce. Nobody knows precisely how many undocumented workers there are in North County, but it is estimated that more than 60% of San Diego County's migrant workers, a majority of them Hispanic, can be found in North County.
"We feed about 100 undocumented workers a day," said Gagnon. "The church keeps sandwiches, fruit and other food on hand, and gives it out as travelers pass by and ask for it. . . . We do a lot, but there is always more we can do."
As always, children in hospitals, shelters, receiving homes and other social welfare situations need toys and clothes.
"Traditionally, the need does increase at holidays," says Judy Winter, director of development at Escondido Youth Encounter. "We receive many, many requests for help. People feel the stress of not having enough money for food or a tree. People feel the hopelessness."
Winter says the group's shelter for battered women and children becomes so full at the holidays that roll-away beds must be brought in to accommodate everyone.
There are programs throughout North County offering services--from dinners to gifts for children--designed to make the holidays a more pleasant time for those in need.
The sponsoring organizations all rely on contributions of time, money and goods from many individuals to accomplish what they do.
Christmas dinner at the Armed Forces YMCA in Oceanside has been an abiding tradition. This year, with Operation Desert Shield in full swing, the Y is inviting not only members of the military but also Marine dependent families who find themselves alone at the holidays.
"Last year we fed 220 people at the Y," says YMCA director Glen Bryson. "This year we expect more. . . . We need people to carve turkeys, to serve pies, and to sit and talk with those who are looking for friendship," said Bryson.
Many community organizations collect and distribute food and gift baskets, including churches, the Salvation Army and crisis centers. And in North County there are organizations that exist for this sole purpose. The Carlsbad Christmas Bureau and the Vista Christmas Caring & Sharing Program are two of them.