201112ind Bank RI Tree-4

Kasey Vivenzio, manager of Bank RI’s North Kingstown location, shows one of the items on the branch’s “Giving Tree.”

NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Casandra Nieves has faced the unthinkable this Christmas after being unemployed for a long stretch due to the covid pandemic: She wouldn’t have money for Christmas presents for her daughter.

The single mother in Woonsocket twisted and turned about the problem as she also stared at mounting household bills and as well as basic money for food and housing costs.

Then came along the BankRI’s request through its “Holiday Giving Tree” program about gifts children would want this holiday season. It was funneled through Connecting for Children and Families, a partner with the bank in providing gifts for those in need.

“This program took a huge weight off of my shoulders and with all these uncertain times. Christmas is my daughter’s favorite holiday,” she said.

As the COVID pandemic resurges in Rhode Island and elsewhere – sapping people’s health as well as their finances – BankRI is watching out for children’s happiness this holiday season.

And that giving might in return give a memory that lasts a lifetime, according to an old Chinese proverb.

“If you want happiness for an hour — take a nap. If you want happiness for a day — go fishing. If you want happiness for a year — inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime — help someone else.”

Now in its 23rd year of sponsoring the “Holiday Giving Tree” program, the bank and its partners have been helping hundreds of people. Since the program began, more than 10,000 gifts have been donated and distributed to families who didn’t have money or resources for presents.

That number for gifts alone last year was 1,466 for scores of children whose families lacked the money for presents.

In offices around the state – including Wakefield and North Kingstown – the bank is collecting children’s gifts to be given to various statewide community service organizations for distribution.

“We want to make life easier for people. Holidays important to children. Parents struggle to make ends meet for them and the last thing they should have to worry about is providing Christmas and holiday gifts,” said Patricia O’Donnell Saracino, BankRI vice president for community relations.

Woonsocket’s Zoya Tseytlin, of Connecting for Children and Families, said that tears have come to parents whom they have given gifts collected by BankRI.

“It’s wonderful to see our families know that there’s a business – a bank – that really cares about the community and does a lot, not just around the holidays, but as well all year long,” she said, adding that the bank also helps struggling people with food pantry and personal care items.

“For the families to know that there’s somebody who cares, that they can get a Barbie doll or a truck, that really helps them at the holidays, especially with COVID, layoffs, and people being stretched well beyond means that is always a struggle anyway,” she said.

Nieves echoed that point.

“I am so thankful that BankRI is running this program this year. It is truly a godsend where my main focus can be to be a good mom while working to catch up on bills and finishing school to better our future,” she said.

Holiday Financial Struggles

Nearly half of low-income Americans have reported that they or someone in their household experienced some type of income loss during the pandemic, according to information published by Pew Research Center.

Because more people are facing hardship this year due to the impacts of COVID-19, more families in will likely be in need of assistance this holiday season and into 2021, according to the research.

According to other research sources, every Christmas there are families who don’t exchange gifts because they can’t afford them. However, many communities offer programs that rely on donations to put new clothes and toys under the tree for children and families that usually go without Christmas gifts.

Organizations like The Salvation Army estimate they could serve up to 155% more people with Christmas assistance this year, assuming the resources are available, based on increased services already provided during the pandemic.

The problem is not isolated to the United States. For instance, in Great Britain, there are similar worries about affording gifts for children due to the pandemic’s crushing financial affects.

More than half (52%) of UK consumers are worried about how they will afford Christmas this year, as the harsh economic realities of the COVID-19 pandemic hit home for many, according to a survey and Yahoo.com.

About 31% of those polled for consumer insight company Toluna’s Understanding the 2020 Consumer Global Barometer study plan to spend less on presents and gifts this year.

This is due to 43% of the 1,108 people polled having concerns about the current financial situation, the survey found.

It showed 40% of people want to save as much as possible for 2021 for fear of what is to come, and 39% of those asked said they will spend less on presents because they have seen changes in personal finances this year.

In the South County area several area ministers and others helping the needy said they have seen a significant increase in the numbers of people looking for assistance.

Many said they attribute the requests to a job loss or other several financial constraints that occurred directly because of the pandemic and restrictions, such as the loss of a job in a restaurant or retail business.

In Rhode Island

To aid those most vulnerable, nonprofit organizations across the nation are seeking help and in Rhode Island, BankRI officials said they saw this increased need, too.

They started their annual campaign, which depends on staff in local branches to help foster, a month early this year.

Saracino said that the bank credits its front-line employees who get the word out. In the program’s past 22 years, the bank estimates that more than 10,000 gifts have been collected and distributed by the variety of partners.

All BankRI locations will display a Holiday Giving Tree in its lobby, decorated with ornaments featuring the name, age, and holiday wish of a child served by that branch’s nonprofit partner.

BankRI relies on its nonprofit partners to identify the children they serve who would benefit from the Holiday Giving Tree program, the bank explained. Partners provide the bank with a child’s age, whether they are a boy or girl, and also their holiday wish.

To respect privacy and the sensitive nature of the program, a child’s real name is substituted with a different one.

The goal, the bank said, is for people to provide the gift that a child wished for and that is written on their ornament. Only unwrapped gifts can be accepted due to protections associated with the pandemic, officials noted.

During the multi-week effort, customers and members of the community are invited to visit a branch to select an ornament and provide a gift for that child. Those interested in helping may also call the branch to request ornament information by phone if they prefer.

Once a gift has been purchased, donors may return to their branch to deliver the unwrapped present.

BankRI officials said they recognize community’s concerns about COVID-19 and is offering alternatives to safely deliver gifts. Donors may also call their branch to schedule a curbside drop-off where bank staff will retrieve the donated present from the trunk of the vehicle.

Those who wish to enter a branch to place their gift beneath the tree must wear a face covering and will be greeted by an employee at the entrance. The greeter will confirm identification and ask basic questions about COVID-19 and travel.

Social distancing is required, and anyone not feeling well is asked to stay home.

Mark J. Meiklejohn, president and CEO of BankRI, said, “With nearly every aspect of our lives impacted by the pandemic, we were committed to making sure we could safely continue our holiday program and lift the spirits of kids at a time they may need it most.”

“We realize families have been hit hard and providing gifts this year may be a challenge, so we want everyone to know our staff is ready to make participating as safe and easy as possible,” he added.

The following is a list of the non-profit organizations helping BankRI with this year’s gift-giving for children.

2020 Holiday Giving Tree Nonprofit Partners

  • Adoption Rhode Island
  • Aids Care Ocean State
  • Boys & Girls Clubs of Warwick
  • Christmas Is
  • Comprehensive Community Action Program
  • Community Care Alliance
  • Connecting for Children & Families
  • Domestic Violence Program of Crossroads RI
  • East Bay Community Action Program
  • Kingstown Crossings
  • Lucy’s Hearth
  • Providence Housing Authority
  • SSTARbirth
  • Town of Lincoln Holiday Basket Program
  • Tri-County Community Action Agency
  • Welcome House of South County

Bill Seymour is a freelance writer covering news and personality feature stories in Narragansett, North Kingstown and South Kingstown. He can be reached at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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