Horn Lake High School teacher Amanda Sowell brings the holidays home for dozens of needy families around DeSoto County. As executive officer and founder of the DeSoto County Christmas Crusade, Sowell brings together a squad of volunteers every year to donate, wrap and deliver gifts to families across the area. In 2013, the organization delivered gifts to 36 families comprised of more than 120 individuals.
Click Magazine: What are some of your duties as executive officer and founder?
Amanda Sowell: I’m in charge of contacting all of the middle and high school counselors throughout DeSoto County each year. My main job is to screen families and make sure we’ve got good candidates who really need help in the community. Also, I work to gain sponsors to help pay for the jackets, shoes, presents and food for the families. My two main priorities with the group are pretty much getting sponsorship and seeking out families.
CM: How have things expanded over the years?
AS: 2011 was our first year. It’s increased dramatically. Each year when we request nominations, we get hundreds. We try to take as many families as we can but we’re getting limited in terms of space. Our principal here at Horn Lake High School has been so gracious each year. He lets us use classrooms to store the gifts and we also use the cafeteria to wrap the gifts. When we distribute the gifts, we all meet at Horn Lake High and disperse from there. We’ve almost outgrown the high school, though, which is really cool and an awesome blessing, but we’re not sure where to go now!
CM: How do you narrow down the list of nominations for each family in need?
AS: The more an organization grows, the more money it needs. We have hundreds of nominations but unfortunately we can’t take all of them. The money just isn’t there. When the counselors nominate them, I contact the families and sometimes Mississippians can be proud. Some families they just refuse help and we can scratch off a few names. But the really unfortunate ones are the families that are nominated that don’t even have a working phone line. It’s a sad situation because those groups are often the ones who need it the most.
CM: Mississippi has been declared the poorest state with the greatest capacity for charitable giving in the past. Do you see a lot of this drive for giving in spite of circumstances in your organization?
AS: hat’s not a shocking statistic to me at all. We are definitely the most hospitable state in the Union, so that’s not a surprising statistic at all. When we go out into the community and explain what we do, the people always give. While they may not be able to give $1,000 to help, people always give when we explain what we’re doing for the community.
CM: Who volunteers for the DeSoto County Christmas Crusade?
AS: Local high school students are our main volunteers. We definitely take adults because I don’t send our teens into the community to a stranger’s house. Also, our high school students don’t work within the same school as the gift recipients. If we’re buying gifts for a family that lives in Southaven, they’ll have gifts delivered by a Horn Lake or Hernando club. Our volunteers don’t even know the names of recipients, just the genders and ages of who they’re buying for.
CM: Do you work with any other local businesses, charitable organizations or clubs?
AS: CoroRio, the kids’ choir from around town, will be asking for donations for us at their concert on December 6. Hendricks and Co. recently handled all the photography for our recent Daddy & Me Snow Ball. They’ve been a ton of help. Also, Kelly and Heather Harrison from Blue Daze Bistro have been among our biggest supporters since we’ve started. If there was one person who’s been my sidekick since this thing started, it’s definitely Kelly. She’s adopted families in the past and she’s more than willing to help every year.
CM: How do you keep up with operations outside the holiday season?
AS: We try to keep our little group in the back of people’s minds. The Christmas season is also the time when many people tend to run short on money, so we try to keep the word out to bring in new opportunities throughout the year. Spring is actually a really big time for us to draw in new volunteers and sponsors.
CM: What type of gifts or donations are most needed?
AS: We deliver for a lot of local teens, which can be tough to shop for. We have a list of suggested gifts on our website, but I can tell you that every single person we reach out to receives a coat and a new pair of shoes.
CM: Do you have any memorablestories from previous delivery days?
AS: Delivery day is an awesome experience and more people catch on every year. In fact, last year we nearly had more delivery drivers than families we delivered to. It is the most rewarding day and the most appropriate way to conclude our Christmas Crusade. You really get to see the payoff and our volunteers get to see just why they’re doing this. When my volunteers return from these homes, they often come back in tears. It’s not ordinary for us to deliver to a house that is only heated by opening the oven. Most of them don’t have Christmas trees and if they’re lucky enough to, it isn’t decorated. We’ve been to houses with no electricity, which is rough during this time of the year. We’ve been to two-room trailers with eight or ten people living in them. Although these stories are tragic, our volunteers always leave with more than they gave. After that, there’s always an appreciation for what we’re going home to.
Causes | December 2014
Santa’s Little Helpers
Amanda Sowell leads the charge of DeSoto County Christmas Crusade this holiday season
Story by Casey Hilder