Because of community donations through BigHouse Foundation, nearly 300 foster and adoptive children will wake up to gifts under the tree on Christmas morning.
BigHouse is an organization based in Opelika that utilizes the generosity of locals to meet the needs of foster families in Lee and surrounding counties. The nonprofit did just that this year when it received donations of toys and funding for its annual Santa's Workshop, which was held last Saturday.
The event was hosted at Cornerstone Methodist Church in Auburn and brought families in from Lee County and surrounding areas like Chambers County. The event was two-fold — foster and adoptive children were coming in to select gifts for their parents and siblings while parents snuck off to a different room to secretly select gifts for their kids.
About 275 kids were being shopped for during the event — 100 more than previous years.
"This is our biggest year yet," said Micah Melnick, BigHouse founder and executive director. The increase in children being served through the event can be attributed to more Chambers County families depending on the support this year as well as the event being open to adoptive families and foster families.
"We include our adopted families, so they stay with BigHouse, but then we add on new foster families as well, so it's kind of a snowball effect," Melnick said, adding that families who have adopted a child need more support than ever. "We have some families that have adopted four- or five-person sibling groups, and this is a huge benefit because once they adopt, everything else ends. They're typically not getting stipends, help from DHR; they're on their own."
Hannah Hall, a resident of Chambers County, attended Santa's Workshop with her three adopted children, ages 6, 5 and 3. The two oldest got to shop for their family members, but were equally excited about playing with their friends at BigHouse.
"They're used to coming here, and they know they're going to have fun and play games and make crafts," said Hall, who brings her family to monthly BigHouse Kids Night Out events. "They absolutely love it; they look forward to it, and now that the older two are able to shop for us, they love it.
"And they have no idea what this really is; they just think they're coming to have fun."
But while they were playing on the playground after shopping for their parents, Hall was picking out toys to fill their stockings.
She said having a community like BigHouse has been essential, especially during the holidays.
"We've adopted three, and with that comes extra expenses for therapy, doctors' appointments, stuff that normal children wouldn't have to deal with," Hall said. "Throughout the year, bills add up, and it's nice for BigHouse to do this for us because it takes a lot of pressure off us. We're able to come here to shop for free for any child in the home ... It just really, really is a blessing during the Christmas season."
Hall and her husband felt called to foster after they couldn't have children biologically. Hall's in-laws were already fostering two children, who they have since adopted, and Hall and her husband felt moved to foster after interacting with them.
Over the course of three years, the Halls adopted their three children, and during that time, her brother-in-law also adopted two boys.
"So there are seven kids that we have adopted in our family," she said. "We all have friends in different places in life, but the friends that we have here in BigHouse and through BigHouse, they understand the trials that we go through with our kids, because our kids have experienced a lot of trauma. They get that. We're able to come — and I've never left my kids with a babysitter; I just can't — but I can freely come and leave them with BigHouse knowing they are taken care of.
"It means the world to have this organization."
So many toys were donated to assist BigHouse with Santa's Workshop this year, that each parent was able to pick out a "big item" for their kids as well as several smaller items, said Micah.
Items were donated by community groups and local organizations, and any left over will be used in other BigHouse programs that are offered throughout the year.
"BigHouse’s goal is just to support foster and adoptive families throughout the year," Melnick said. "We know Christmas is a time where the community really wants to give back, and so I think the beauty of this event is really engaging our local community to think about serving these families."
But while the gifts are a large part of the event, Melnick said the feeling it gives the parents and children is the real goal.
"Some of our families walk in and they're just like, 'I can't believe that people gave all this for us,'" she said. "There is something about building the community, having volunteers, and it being hands-on. Having parents walk in and be like, 'This whole event was for us,' and the same thing with the kids — letting them have an opportunity to be a part of the event, see their friends, play on the playground, all of that is important to BigHouse, more than just the gifts."