It looked like an ordinary preholiday gift-wrapping session – lots of adults and kids flourishing bright paper and ribbon while Christmas music played.
But Saturday’s event was the first of its kind for the Charlotte nonprofit HopeMatch, which helps the working poor.
Families who received help from the charity last year were wrapping presents for new families getting assistance this year. Called “Give Back,” the event at the Ephesus Center, located at the Ephesus Church on South Mint Street, was created especially for those who have already been touched by the organization’s helping hand.
Ten families came out to wrap presents, and three families later shared personal stories to a group that included HopeMatch volunteers.
“It’s cool to see people have this kind of heart,” said Erin Blackmore, 31, the nonprofit’s founder. “It makes them happy to be able to do something for somebody else.”
A part-time food stamp case manager with the Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services, Blackmore said she works with people who fall between the cracks – not qualifying for assistance because their income is slightly over the limit.
Her husband, Brian, is a banker with Wells Fargo; when he got a Christmas bonus five years years ago, the couple wanted to use it to help specific needy families. But they couldn’t find a charitable organization to make that connection. So the Blackmores found families online, or through contacts at work.
About a year later, in 2010, Erin Blackmore started HopeMatch, which matches donors with specific families who provide wish lists of up to $100 per person.
Blackmore said families are nominated by friends and carefully screened by the nonprofit before they are approved.
Christmas gifts are only part of what HopeMatch does. There’s a back-to-school component that provides school supplies to kids. And throughout the year, there are follow-up programs such as a financial planning program for families who need help with budgeting.
The nonprofit’s website says its theme is “matching local needs with compassionate givers” with a focus on “a hand up, not a hand out.”
Last year, HopeMatch helped 52 families with the purchase of such things as clothes, household items and toys. This year’s goal is 80 families.
Donors shop for specific families and often receive thank you notes.
Among the volunteers at Saturday’s event were Amy Maldonado, a case manager with Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services, her husband, Rady, and their 13-year-old son, R.J.
As people wrapped presents, she said: “It’s fulfilling for them. It puts a smile on their face. It lets them know they are important – that they matter to other people.”
Blackmore saw the Give Back event as a chance for families who’ve gotten help to “pay it forward.”
Vivian and Dan Chaffey of Charlotte came to wrap presents and share the story of how the economic downturn left them struggling to keep a roof over their heads and feed their family.
They were living in East Bay, Calif., where Dan Chaffey and his brother ran a custom homebuilding company.
Things began coming apart in 2008. The homebuilding business froze, and the Chaffeys lost their own home.
About 2 1/2 years ago, they moved to Charlotte.
They found jobs here and there, but it was hard to make ends meet. Last Christmas, they found they couldn’t afford to buy presents for their four children.
That’s when HopeMatch stepped in.
“They made Christmas very special,” said Vivian Chaffey, 50. “They’re very, very personal.”
Things are still tight, but better than last year, she said.
They participated in Give Back as a show of encouragement to others.
“We want to help people get back on their feet,” Chaffey said. “I think it’s a privilege to be here.”
‘Not here to judge’
Also sharing their story were Steve and Anita Gray of Indian Trail. Last year, he was a stay-at-home dad looking after three children and she was a social services manager on unpaid maternity leave. She’s also a doctoral student in health care administration.
At Christmas, the couple felt the financial pinch and couldn’t buy presents for the kids.
A HopeMatch donor helped them over the hard times. Later, a volunteer counseled them in budgeting. They’re still struggling, but they do have a little money in savings now.
The Grays have referred five families to HopeMatch this year.
“We tell them, ‘These people are not here to judge you or look down on you,’” said Steve Gray, 41. “They’re here to help.”