Though change has been the one constant since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, the 126-year-old, homegrown Santa Fund for Schoolkids charity is nothing if not constant.
The fund was created in 1894 by The Daily Progress’ founding publisher, James H. Lindsey. Co-sponsored by The Progress and radio station WINA-AM, in conjunction with The United Way of Greater Charlottesville, it has carried on through two world wars, a Great Depression and a Great Recession.
Relying on the generosity of the community, the fund goes toward providing shoes, clothing, school supplies, medicine, eyeglasses and other essentials to children in need.
“We’ve expanded the program this year,” said Ravi Respeto, president of the local United Way. “With so many losing their jobs during the pandemic or having hours cut back, we understand families are having difficulties on many levels.”
One problem is the COVID-created shift to online learning in schools. That has created issues for some rural-area students who have little or no access to the internet.
“Schools are providing the computers and are providing mobile hotspots for families that can’t afford the internet, but if a family lives in a place where the hotspot can’t find a cell tower, and there are many, that’s a problem,” Respeto said.
“Students in lower incomes are projected to fall a full grade level behind their peers because they don’t have the access to online learning or equipment to adequately learn from home, like quiet, private space, or even furniture,” she said. “We’re facing a new reality in which students don’t have the level playing field of being in a school together.”
The Santa Fund is both simple and efficient. The money raised in the area stays in the area and there is little paperwork, as a child’s need is the qualifying factor, not a family’s income.
The annual campaign kicks off on Thanksgiving Day and runs through mid-January. Donations, which often are dedicated in someone’s honor or memory, are printed in The Progress daily during the drive.
Teachers, principals, pastors and others who see a child with a need may contact the fund to arrange a one-time voucher to a participating retailer to address the problem.
The fund serves children in Charlottesville and the counties of Albemarle, Buckingham, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa, Madison, Nelson and Orange.
The fund is one of the nation’s longest-running newspaper-sponsored charities and organizers are hoping to raise $175,000 this year. The goal is the same as last year, when donors gave a record-high $189,667.93.
“Last year’s record-setting response was amazing, but in the midst of the pandemic, the needs of children in this region are even greater this year,” said Peter S. Yates, president of The Daily Progress. “We are counting more than ever on the generous spirit of this community to help us help area schoolchildren.”
“The reality is that not everyone has been impacted the same by the pandemic,” Respeto said. “People who are still making money because they can work from home have not been as seriously impacted. Everyone has felt an impact, but our donor base has not been hit as hard.”
She said she believes those who can give will do so. She said the need has only increased.
“If anything, there is more need because of the changes,” she said.
Among other changes is a decrease in the number of retailers participating in the voucher program. Kid-to-Kid, Marshalls, Roses, Second Times the Charm, Shoe Show, Terry’s Place and TJ Maxx continue to participate.
This year, students needing prescriptions will be served through the Charlottesville Free Clinic’s pharmacy and those who need eyeglasses will have arrangements made for them, charity officials said.
Contributions may be mailed to Santa Fund, 806 E. High St., Charlottesville, VA 22902.
Contributions also can be made at thesantafund.org.