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Santa Fund's voucher program quietly clothes Charlottesville-area students

A Charlottesville woman who goes by the name of Patrice remembers hearing about the Santa Fund program through her daughter’s school that would provide $100 worth of free clothing to her child. It was late summer, and school was getting ready to start, so Patrice says she called Venable Elementary to see if they might qualify.

“It was really important to me,” says Patrice. “I wasn’t working at that time.”

A line worker in food service at the University of Virginia, Patrice was waiting for the university students — and, more crucially, her paychecks — to return. As a single mom living in subsidized housing, Patrice says that providing for her daughter isn’t easy. But the Santa Fund voucher gave her 10-year-old daughter a rare chance to splurge. And to make her own buying decisions.

“She was like, ‘Can I pick out anything?’”

Any item or combination of items up to $100 was fair game, under the terms of the voucher.

“To see the excitement on her face to pick out something without worrying,” exclaims Patrice. “She was so excited.”

The fourth grader’s top purchase was a winter coat, says her mom.

“She loves it.”

Hearing such a story warms the heart of Venable’s social worker, Regan Harker, who oversees the voucher program with the school counselor and the administration.

“It’s just like cash,” says Harker. “You walk in with a $100 voucher, and you walk out with clothes.”

Venable has the reputation in some circles as the upscale elementary school since it draws students from nearby neighborhoods where million-dollar houses are not uncommon and because many faculty and administrators at the nearby University of Virginia draw six-figure salaries. However, this fall, for the first time in its history, the city mandated that Venable draw students from the Westhaven public housing complex. This policy change means more financially challenged students at the otherwise relatively affluent Venable.

The United Way of Greater Charlottesville serves the communities of Albemarle, Charlottesville, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa and Nelson. Harker says that for each of the 10 Charlottesville city schools included in the Santa Fund, the program supplies about $30,000 worth of vouchers. Harker says the approximately 20 vouchers that Venable can distribute each year are eagerly snatched up — with more desire than the school can accommodate.

“I wish we could give one to everyone,” says Harker.

Harker says that she can see results of the program in many ways. One group of girls, all of whom received the vouchers, recently arrived at school in matching jackets.

“It was really sweet to see them,” says Harker.

Another child attending Venable got a new pair of shoes.

“The student said, ‘Thank you so much; now my shoes aren’t too tight,’” Harker recalls.

A fresh outfit, Harker says, can work wonders.

“They have a smile on their face,” says Harker, “and they get a confidence boost.”

One way this program may boost confidence is that it avoids any charity stigma, as explained by the United Way’s vice-president of community engagement, Caroline Emerson.

“Parents take their vouchers to participating vendors and purchase what is needed for the child, and the store accepts the voucher as payment,” Emerson says in an email. “What’s nice about this is that the child doesn’t have to go to ‘get charity’—she just goes shopping like other kids, and picks out a coat!”

Emerson says that the program isn’t limited just to clothes. School supplies, eyeglasses, or starter doses of medication and inhalers are all fair game, as long as purchases further the education or well-being of the student.

“In recent years,” Emerson notes, “the Santa Fund has authorized expenses such as internet service to make doing schoolwork at home possible.”

Still, Patrice says her Venable 4th grader really loved the feeling of independence at making her own clothing choice when prior garment choices made by a parent may have missed the mark.

“It gave her the chance,” says Patrice, laughing, “to pick out the coat that she actually wanted.”

The Santa Fund was established in 1894. Donations help provide warm clothing and school supplies for children. The Daily Progress radio station WINA, in conjunction with The United Way of Greater Charlottesville, sponsor the Santa Fund. The Fund serves children in the city of Charlottesville and the counties of Albemarle, Buckingham, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa, Madison, Nelson and Orange.

You can donate online at or by mail a check to Santa Fund for Schoolkids, 200 Garrett Street Suite I, Charlottesville, VA 22902. You also can honor or remember a loved one by giving in their honor or mem


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