By Aleksandra Sidorova
For at least 50 years, SUNY Plattsburgh has been working with the Clinton County Department of Social Services to bring holiday joy to local children, as part of the Adopt-a-Friend charity initiative. This year, 125 children ages 1 to 17 have been “adopted.”
No one can remember exactly when the Adopt-a-Friend initiative started, but Jim Sherman, now director of Housing and Community Living, remembers participating 20 years ago, when he worked as a residence assistant.
After years of coordinating the program, Interim Vice President of Enrollment and Student Success Cori Jackson passed the responsibility to her assistant Lyndsey Lafountain. Before Jackson, the person coordinating Adopt-a-Friend was Katie Gadway, who now manages reservations for the Angell College Center.
Social Services sent Lafountain 125 lists containing the age and gender of children in need as well as one or two specific gifts they requested. Children typically ask for toys, LEGO sets, makeup, hair chalk, clothes, and, more commonly requested by teenagers, gift cards, Sherman said.
Participants can either donate money that the college will use to buy gifts or purchase the requested items themselves before the deadline Nov. 18. Social Services then picks up the gifts, and social workers deliver them to the families. If there is money left over after every child’s gift requests are fulfilled, it goes toward Price Chopper gift cards for up to 70 families.
Many departments participate in the initiative: offices of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; Student Conduct, the Provost, Global Education, the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, the Learning Center and the Career Development Center. Groups and individuals alike participate in the charity. Chartwells, the company providing campus dining, is the second-largest contributor. The largest contributor, collecting $2,000 in donations last year and “adopting” 70 children this year, is Housing and Community Living. Sherman is the first to take on children because he knows what dorm residents are capable of, Lafountain said.
“I’ve seen lots of people donate quite a bit — specifically students — to this program, because they see it as a worthy cause,” Sherman said.
In past years, the college relied on cash donations to get the money to buy children the gifts they want. That has changed.
“It’s being done a little differently this year, mostly because students are moving less to having cash on them and more to Venmo and things like that,” Sherman said.
Although students, faculty and staff can still donate cash to the ACC information desk, there is also an online donation platform for donations of $1, $5, $10 and $50 are accepted at tickets.plattsburgh.edu.
“Any bit helps. A dollar, five dollars, three dollars, it doesn’t matter,” Sherman said. “Whatever you folks can give means a lot.”
Travis Gorham, who graduated from SUNY Plattsburgh in 2009 and now works as a multicultural coach for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, was on the receiving end of the Adopt-a-Friend donations when he worked as a caseworker for Social Services.
“We’d make our list,” Gorham said. “I would go around asking kids, families what they needed for Christmas, what would they like in an ideal world, and some didn’t want much, but there were some that really needed the extra help because they were behind on bills, or some tragic situation behooved their family, so in those cases I really tried to do whatever I can through the generosity of the community members here at SUNY Plattsburgh and just try to help those families out, bring smiles on those faces where, if this program wasn’t in place, they wouldn’t possibly be able to do that.”
Gorham said the program helps a variety of families, ranging from “extremely poverty-stricken” to families who are “well-off” but need guidance in parenting or connecting with their children. While Social Services is able to help families through many resources on their own, Adopt-a-Friend establishes a special connection between the college and the Plattsburgh community, Gorham said.
Gorham jumped at the opportunity to be on the opposite end of the initiative helping gather donations.
“When I look at my list, I see coworkers’ names, and I’m happy to know that, hey, I’m going to play a role in helping a family get something that they may not have been able to get prior,” Gorham said.
Besides setting families up for a strong start of the year, Adopt-a-Friend also strengthens the college’s relationship with the community. As such, the initiative contributes to one of the goals established in “Plattsburgh Next,” SUNY Plattsburgh’s development plan for the next three years.
“Having good relationships with the city, I think, is a good thing, so whatever we can do to help improve that I think is a good thing,” Sherman said. “I think there’s just this need for us to have that working relationship with the city because we’re directly in it, unlike a lot of other colleges and institutions — they tend to be on the side of the city, not necessarily in it.”
Sherman also recalls personally benefiting from a community outreach program like Adopt-a-Friend growing up in Afton, New York — Toys for Tots and teachers in school getting together to help families.
“It usually meant having a good Christmas versus not,” Sherman said. “The difference between what I had and [Adopt-a-Friend] is they never asked, What do you want for Christmas? It was always sort of a guess. You always got something, but as a kid, not exactly what I was looking for. But the thought always meant a lot — that I do remember.”
Gorham is from Bridgeport, Connecticut. He said the area he grew up in was an “impoverished place.” At some point, his family found itself in need and received help from the surrounding community. Gorham said his mother always wanted to help others. Through his experience and his mother’s example, Gorham learned the value of giving, which he hopes to pass on to his six children when he takes them with him to purchase gifts for the children he “adopted” through Adopt-a-Friend.
“That sense of giving and providing for a family, helping them out, will never leave me,” Gorham said.