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Goodfellows spreads hope, holiday cheer

Organization in its 110th year of giving gifts to children

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TOYS— Lena Hall and her family look through pairs of socks at the CAM coat drive. Hall said the coat drive helped her family this year.

Martha Warner was a waitress, a full-time student, and a single mother to four young children. She was busy and exhausted, and money was tight. There were Christmases when she had to determine which bill to pay late to be able to give her children a Christmas at all.

So when a friend told Warner about programs offered by Goodfellows of Kokomo, whose slogan is “making kids smile”, she jumped at the chance to apply.

“It was a huge relief for me not to have to worry about Christmas those years,” Warner said. “Christmas is really expensive. For me it was a huge relief not to have to worry, ‘Will I not pay my electric this month so I can get Christmas, or is it going to be gas this month? What bill am I not going to pay, how many bills am I not going to pay, how long can I extend it out so I can actually get Christmas this year?’”

Goodfellows, which is the longest-running Christmas program for children in the county, was founded in 1911 by an employee at the Kokomo Tribune. It helps organize and fund three different holiday events for families each year, along with providing scholarships to local students and clothing assistance to children who have experienced disasters.

“We’ve provided clothing to 1,772 children,” John Wiles, communications director at Goodfellows, said about its donations last year.

Goodfellows is a nonprofit organization governed by a board of directors, and everyone who works there is a volunteer. The organization receives the majority of its funding through We Care and partners with various organizations to help those in need.

During the holidays, Goodfellows plans events with Toys for Tots and Cops 4 Kidz. Toys for Tots, which is locally organized by the Marine Corps Reserve at Grissom Air Reserve Base, provides toys to children who might otherwise not get much, if anything, for Christmas. Cops 4 Kidz is organized by the Kokomo Fraternal Order of Police and allows police officers to shop for clothes with underprivileged kids in the community.

Wiles said that last year Cops 4 Kidz helped 247 families. When a family applies to Goodfellows, they can indicate which programs they want to be part of. They can participate in the regular clothing program or Toys for Tots and Cops 4 Kidz.

To apply to the program, there is a comprehensive application that must be filled out and submitted by a certain date. The deadline for this year was Nov. 15. Families hoping to participate must meet federal poverty guidelines and provide proof of income and expenses. Adults filling out the application must also show proof of custody or guardianship for their children.

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It takes time for Goodfellows to review each application, but Wiles said families should usually hear back around Thanksgiving. If they are enrolled in the programs, they will be given specific dates the children can shop and choose toys.

There is also an adoption program available to families who qualify for the programs. Organizations can apply to sponsor a family through the holidays, and Goodfellows will match families that asked to be adopted to organizations looking to adopt a family.

Wiles said 115 families were adopted by Stellantis, and 44 additional families were adopted through other local businesses and organizations last year. When a family is adopted, the organization that adopted them typically pays for gifts, clothing, and sometimes even food for holiday dinners.

“When [a family] is adopted, they’re going to receive the same amount as Goodfellows would give or more,” Wiles said.

Warner said her children still talk about a Christmas when their family was adopted by a local business.

“One year we got adopted. That was pretty amazing,” Warner said. “We got a lot of gifts and a lot of food. Each year it was just a little different, and my kids loved it and really appreciated it. They’re grown up now, my oldest is 22 and my youngest is 17, but they still talk about that one year when we had all the Christmas presents and the turkey and ham. They still talk about how amazing it was.”

Even though every program emphasizes helping children, parents also benefit greatly when their family is chosen to receive help from Goodfellows.

“It was a lot. Being a single mom was really rough,” Warner said. “Thanks to the help that [Goodfellows] gave me, and the help of other programs as well, I finished my bachelor’s degree, I’ve been teaching for 15 years now, and I went on to get my master’s degree. Now I have my own business and I teach at IUK.”

Warner chooses to give back by volunteering at Goodfellows herself. She said it has been very satisfying to help others in the same way she was helped when her children were young. She also said she wants the community to understand how hard Goodfellows volunteers work.

“They have huge hearts,” Warner said. “The volunteer board, they are amazing people and they want to make sure everybody gets everything that they need. They’re wonderful.”