Rebecca Swope couldn’t help choking up as soon as she took the podium Thursday at Bryan County Family Connection’s appreciation luncheon.
She and her husband, Gary, have been struggling to make ends meet, and Family Connection stepped in to purchase gifts for the couple’s son and daughter this past Christmas.
“When I see my daughter cuddling the little doll that she got and playing mom, and when I see my son open his gifts on Christmas morning and he says, ‘That’s all I ever wanted,’” Swope said fighting off tears, “that’s all I ever wanted.”
The Bryan County Children’s Fund provides Christmas presents to hundreds of children in the county each year, according to Family Connection Director Wendy Sims. It is one of the programs Bryan County Family Connection offers to help children and families.
The luncheon at the John W. Stevens Wetlands Education Center had a “building Bryan” theme, complete with hard hats and road cones. The Connection thanked approximately 60 businesses, agencies and organizations that assisted its efforts during the past year.
“This is how we are, one family at a time, building a better Bryan,” Sims said.
Swope called the Christmas-gift program a “blessing from God” that she will never forget.
“When I get the opportunity, I will 100 percent pay it forward,” she said. “I know there’s so many out there that are less fortunate than I am, that’s fallen on harder times than I have and deserve it more.”
For another guest speaker, a different Family Connection program made a big impact on her family. All five of Melissa Matias’ children have enjoyed the Richmond Hill Teen Center’s after-school activities.
Matias, an Army spouse, said she becomes a single parent anytime her husband is deployed. Also, military life has required the family to move several times.
“Our children didn’t want to connect with anybody because they said, ‘What was the point of making friends? We’re just going to move anyway,’” Matias said.
That changed after their eldest child learned about the teen center. He began attending the center, and the other four Matias children followed suit.
The teen center provides a safe and secure environment, Matias said. Along with her children making friends there, they also have learned about leadership and teamwork.
“The best thing about it is that they beg me to go to the teen center, Matias said. “That’s their second home. They call it their home.”
Other Bryan County Family Connection programs include free summer lunches for children, meals delivered to senior citizens and people with disabilities, and a field day for children with special needs. The organization also provides cell-phones to senior citizens, domestic-violence victims or other people who might need emergency phone service, and partners with the Bryan County Sheriff’s Office on Project Lifesaver to provide tracking bracelets that can help locate people such as Alzheimer’s patients or autistic children who have wandered from home.
Family Connection is a statewide initiative with collaboratives in all 159 counties. Bryan County’s receives state and county funding, along with some donations.
“I think it is one of the most important things that the county is involved in,” Bryan County Commissioners Chairman Jimmy Burnsed said.