The True Holiday Struggles for Lower Income Families

The True Holiday Struggles For Lower Income Families By Estelle Bonaceto #HolidayBlogSeries #HolidaysWithWU #WUVIP #Service #HolidayPrograms #LowerIncomeFamilies #TheWellnessUniverse

For many lower income families, the gifts and food items they received through these programs were ALL they had for the holiday.

For families in the lower income brackets, the holidays may add additional stress to already stressful living conditions.

Survivors of complex trauma often have triggers related to difficult experiences they had during the holidays. For many this brings forth emotional distress, dysregulation, along with amplified concerns around holiday gift giving and activities. Some may qualify for holiday programs that help them to have a holiday experience which includes a meal and a gift (or a few) for each family member. Having worked with families in crisis around the holidays, I’ve had an intimate look at all that goes into such holiday programs.

Providing Trauma-Informed Services At The Holidays

Long before the month of December arrives, great efforts are made to coordinate resources for families in need. The challenges that many low-income families face throughout the year may spike just before the holiday. Some may require crisis services or respite to help them through. Agencies providing community mental health services are often responsible for assisting “their families” with accessing holiday services. This is no small order, as there are many families in need and only those receiving certain types of services will be eligible for specific programs.

Clinical teams work diligently to assure that every eligible family in need has access to some kind of assistance. 

Families who are eligible for holiday resources and programs may be contacted and asked about gift ideas. Parents often make meager requests and when asked about what they’d like, have no ideas at all or say, “I don’t need anything”.

Trauma Informed Care by its definition is “a structure and treatment framework that involves understanding, recognizing, and responding to the effects of all types of trauma.”

This translates into being sensitive and aware of issues related to privacy, dignity and emotional triggers. In my last position, when gifts left the building they were wrapped in dark garbage bags and brought out by way of the back exit, as opposed to being brought out in the open through the lobby. Families involved in programs where they picked up holiday items were assigned numbers, so their identity was never revealed.

Individual providers care and concern for their families, sensitivity to emotional triggers based on individual’s unique history and challenges and their unwavering dedication to making sure kids had gifts, is something I will forever be honored to have been part of.

For many lower income families, the gifts and food items they received through these programs were ALL they had for the holiday and the “still frames” of clients outpouring of gratitude will forever be in my mind.

Putting Out Fires

The complicated lives of many during the holidays remain oh, so very complicated. Providing community crisis services at any time of the year has challenges and can weigh heavily upon one’s heart, but as the weather grows colder and the holidays approach, providers most certainly feel the stress of their positions. Upon arriving to work on any given day providers must jump to rearrange their schedules to accommodate helping those with letters of eviction, domestic disputes, mental health emergencies, food insecurity or other acute need.

Some days it feels like putting out fires and juggling the lives of many makes it difficult to stay mentally present for oneself. Between clients, community and office phone calls, the average “worker” is in an out of their home base a half-dozen or more times a day.

Some days, I couldn’t help but laugh when I’d discover that I was not the only staff person looking for their car. One day, I’d received a call from a young mother. She reported having two diapers for two kids under the age of two for the next two days. It was the week before Christmas and I’d contacted every resource I knew of to obtain diapers without success.

Breaking The Rules

At the end of a stressful day, I finally returned to my desk and discovered the diaper fairy had arrived!! A Christmas miracle? Of a sort. I knew it was a co-worker who’d purchased them. Although she’d deny it, I knew better. In truth, we all hid our charity even to each other. Everyone already worked many hours beyond that which they were getting paid for and talked a good talk about how we decided to stop giving so much. Still, each day outside of paid hours we secretly transported Christmas trees on the roofs of our cars or purchased and then donated food items to families. Whether you were a therapist, an outreach worker or a supervisor, everyone was guilty of good deeds. Thinking back, it makes me happy. This is the best kind of rule breaking; the kind done without regret. Last year, right before the holiday break, I met with a family after hours that I helped to transition from a shelter to low-income housing. She and her kids picked out a gift for me; a mug along with hot chocolate. Accepting gifts are clearly outlined as against agency policy, but I openly received my gift with a big hug and expression of gratitude.

Some rules are worth breaking! When in question, always go with a higher law.