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VOL. 115 | NO. 209 | Friday, December 7, 2001

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By JENNIFER MURLEY

Angels program needs a little Christmas magic

By JENNIFER MURLEY

The Daily News

Ten years ago, Jo Ann Brown-Saxton looked forward to the holidays. She wasnt rich, but between the income she earned as a day care teacher and her husbands salary, their two small children always found gifts under the Christmas tree.

Who knew it wouldnt last?

In 1993, her husband was diagnosed with cancer, leaving him unable to work. A year later, she was involved in an elevator accident in which she was literally crushed, leaving her in perpetual pain, and chronically depressed.

In two short years, the family went from being a dual income household to being completely dependent on government disability benefits.

Christmas would never be the same again.

Then, she met Janice Dana Snedeker.

Two years ago, she needed Christmas gifts for her children, now ages 16 and 13, and checked into some of the local holiday gift programs for the needy.

But, due to program stipulations, both of her children didnt qualify for gifts, which is when she first heard about Snedekers Angels of Love program dedicated to providing holiday gifts for children of the working poor.

It has changed Christmas. It has changed our lives, said Brown-Saxton, 44. Its not just about toys for me, it gives me something to hope for.

She now regularly works alongside Snedeker each holiday season, making phone calls to potential donors and packaging toys, to ensure that Mid-South families in need do not go without during Christmas.

Brown-Saxton is just one of the many lives Angels of Love has touched since its humble beginnings five years ago when Snedeker said about 37 families participated in the program. Last year, her program served more than 500 families, matching more than 1,500 children with toys, books and games.

I have got so many people and Ive talked to each one of these people, Snedeker said. We dont want anyone to do without.

Unlike similar programs that impose age restrictions on participating children or income guidelines on the parents, Snedeker said Angels of Love is simply open to families in need, regardless of their situation.

What she does require is proof of the parents identification, copies of their childrens birth certificates and proof of income. In exchange, parents receive more than $50 in gifts for each child, which includes five toys, stocking stuffers, books and stuffed animals.

Our whole thing is to keep families together, make them unified, and let them know that there is somebody out there that cares, she said. I might never see them again, but theyll remember what happened and hopefully, when they find someone who is in trouble, theyll pass a little bit of help along.

And, at 59, Snedeker, a self-proclaimed everyday grandma, speaks about hard times from experience. As a young mother 40 years ago, she struggled to raise two children on her own, working odd jobs just to put food on the table.

Ive been there, its just as clear as yesterday, she said. I can remember when I had to ask people for help for my kids and its just an awful feeling.

Even today, she still struggles living on a meager monthly $540 social security check in a Frayser trailer park.

The difference is, now instead of providing for two kids on her own during the holidays, today she provides for 1,500 with thanks to the donations of many. Shes not bashful about asking for help.

Our motto is well go where no folks have gone before, and well beg where no folks have begged before, she said, emphasizing the current need for both cash and toy donations as the holidays fast approach.

Barbie, Pokemon, Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh are always popular donations, she said, but added now kids also like the more high-tech toys such as Gameboys.

Every little toy, every little bike, every little thing we get its going to help somebody, she said, adding that shell go anywhere to pick up donations.

Her daughter Debi Mulligan, 39, along with Snedekers son and fiance has been helping with Angels of Love for the past four years.

I couldnt be more proud of her, Mulligan said. She doesnt give in. This is her goal and each year as it grows she just spends that much more time on the phone. Shell just tell them up front, Im not a big fancy person Im a grandma but this is what I do.

After nearly three months of collecting toys and stocking stuffers, Snedeker will lease a storefront space Dec. 22-23 to distribute the gifts to the qualified families. Families will be assigned numbers that match their gift bags, along with designated times to pick up the toys.

Surrounded by her friends and family, Snedeker said she plans to stay up late and get up early until Christmas Day to ensure every family in need has something for the holidays.

And right beside her, will be the families served by Snedekers Angels of Love.

I dont know what her educational background is and all that, but I do know that shes just plain people like me, said Brown-Saxton, referring to her new friend Snedeker. Everything has gotten so corporate its about numbers, and minutes and time and the human being part of it is gone. Thats what Ms. Snedeker does, she puts the human being part back in.

Anyone interested in making a donation of cash or toys, or for more information can call Snedeker, 353-8759.

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