THE ISSUE: Many Oklahomans live below the poverty level — or very close to it. Because of constant lack, families already struggling to maintain food and shelter needs are often forced to skip traditional holiday celebrations like gift-giving at Christmas.

LOCAL IMPACT: The Shawnee Salvation Army annually seeks to give to those in need — not just food and shelter, but Christmas gifts, as well. More than 500 families are registered as recipients in this year's program — more than 200 additional families than reported during last year's program.

The giving season is upon us.

Leading the charge for goodwill, the Shawnee Salvation Army kicked off the organization's annual Angel Tree program at Arvest Bank downtown Thursday afternoon. For more than 20 years Arvest has been the home to the program's kickoff event.

The gathering included Capt. Jamie Clay welcoming those in attendance with words of appreciation, while Women’s Auxiliary President Dee Ann Shroyer gave a brief history of the Angel Tree. Social Services Director Virgil Savage entertained with music and Oklahoma Baptist University Senior Jake Nelson — a longtime Angel Tree volunteer — spoke a few words in support of the program.

Small paper Angel tags will soon be on display as the community is invited to help provide Christmas for children in need. All are welcome to take part in buying gifts for recipients listed on hundreds of Angel Tree tags.

The start

The Angel Tree program was created by The Salvation Army in 1979 by Majs. Charles and Shirley White when they worked with a Lynchburg, Virginia, shopping mall to provide clothing and toys for more than 700 children at Christmas time, salvationarmyusa.org states.

“The Whites identified the wishes of local children

by writing their gift needs on the Hallmark Greeting Cards that featured pictures of angels,” Twana Griffith, Salvation Army Women’s Auxiliary president, said.

How it works

• Social service agencies and schools refer families to The Salvation Army for help with Christmas.

• Participants are interviewed to verify need. The Salvation Army obtains the name of each child or special needs adults in the family and a list of desired Christmas gifts. Verification is made to ensure that the family is not receiving duplicate services from another agency.

• Angel tags are printed for each individual and placed on Salvation Army Angel Trees at area malls and in local corporations and organizations.

• Donors select Angels, purchase gifts and return them to collection sites.

• The gifts are then taken to a Salvation Army Christmas Distribution Center for pickup by the Angel families during the seven days before Christmas Eve.

The need

According to the Human Needs Index — the Salvation Army's poverty study — approximately 30 million Americans receive assistance from The Salvation Army each year through a range of social services: food for the hungry, relief for disaster victims, assistance for the disabled, outreach to the elderly and ill, clothing and shelter to the homeless, and opportunities for underprivileged children. Eighty-two cents of every dollar The Salvation Army spends is used to support those services in 5,000 communities nationwide.

Locally

Clay said there are 509 families — 1,253 individuals total — registered as recipients of the program this year.

“The importance of the community's support is vital to the success of the Angel Tree,” Clay said. “For every child adopted you are making dreams a reality.”

Angel Tree tags are not the only way to help with the program — the Salvation Army's toy store inside the Christmas Joy Center is an option for many who would like to help, but would rather not pick up a specific Angel tag.

Clay said some people find it easier to just go out and buy one or more items and drop them off with no specific person or shopping list in mind.

“If you just want to go buy some toys to donate like basketballs or something, that's just as helpful,” she said.

Clay said she gathers those kinds of items to fill in the gaps for Angels who haven't received sponsors or for additional emergency family recipients who may be included after the program has already begun.

“Often 20 to 25 percent of our Angels are not adopted,” she said. “We've built a plan to help buffer that.”

She said she seeks out people who are willing to give a little extra toward those needs.

Another way to help is to fund — or even partially fund — some of the unique or highly-specialized requests that sometimes come through.

“There are, at times, some financially challenging list items,” she said. “Typically they are requested out of a specific need.”

Clay said she was a little surprised by a spike in the number of disabled children — more than 60 — in the program this year.

To become a sponsor for specialized donations, call the Shawnee Salvation Army at (405) 275-2243.

Deadline, drop-off

Clay said all Angel Tree donations should be dropped off by Dec. 12.

To save time, manpower and funds — all donations for Pottawatomie, Lincoln and Seminole Counties will be collected in Shawnee.

There are some options this year for dropping off gifts:

•The Shawnee Salvation Army, 200 E. 9th Street, will accept donations from Thanksgiving through Dec. 12 during regular office hours.

• The Municipal Auditorium — dubbed the Christmas Joy Center during the event — will accept donations between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. every day except Sundays from Nov. 28 through Dec. 12.

• Vision Bank, 4301 N. Harrison, will accept donations from Thanksgiving through Dec. 12 during regular office hours.

For those seeking an Angel to buy for, there are many participating locations for Angel Trees in Pottawatomie County; many are returning sponsors, plus a handful of new ones. They are:

• Arvest Bank, 201 N. Broadway

• Buford White Ace Hardware, 603 E. Independence

• Berkshire Hathaway, 3601 N. Harrison

• BancFirst, 1939 N. Harrison

• City of Shawnee, 16 W. 9th

• Dominos Pizza, 1600 N. Kickapoo

• Eaton Corp., 8701 N. Harrison

• Elks Lodge, 13500 Acme Road

• Finley & Cook, 601 N. Broadway

• First United Bank, 912 E. Independence

• First National Bank & Trust, 130 E. MacArthur

• Frontline Church, 101 E. Main

• GF Central Plastics, 39605 Independence

• Industrial Axle Co., 301 N. Kennedy

• Jindal Films, 41501 Wolverine Road

• Oklahoma Baptist University, 500 W. University

• OG&E, 1300 N. Kennedy

• Primrose Retirement Community, 1905 N. Bryan

• Shawnee Board of Education, 326 N. Union

• Shawnee News-Star, 215 N. Bell

• Shawnee Mall, 4901 N. Kickapoo

• Temple Baptist Church, 1234 E. Highland

• Vision Bank, 3831 N. Harrison

• Wesley Methodist Church, 302 E. Independence

In Pottawatomie County, Pink Baptist Church is participating with an Angel Tree this year.

In Seminole County, Alliance Medical, BancFirst, Seminole State College, Wrangler and Three Ladies Coffee & Gifts will have Angel Trees on display.

There are a few locations committed to taking part in the Angel Tree program in Lincoln County, as well.