Laurie Szoke is hoping Santa Claus will pay her an early visit this year.

But there are no yachts or luxury vacations on her list. In fact, it isn't her list at all.

Szoke is the community outreach coordinator for the Chester County Cooperative Extension, 4-H Creating Community Networks program, which in turn runs an annual Holiday Care Packages drive.

Szoke said that while there are many charitable organizations working, especially this time of year, the 4-H network reaches out to people who are so marginalized that they become lost within their own communities.

"These are people who may have lost everything in a fire, or they come to our country with nothing but the simple basics, people who work all their lives to try and move forward, but the going is slow, or they lost their jobs and are suffering from an illness," she said. "And our staff is constantly working to identify those families who are not known."

Started in 1998 by then Avon Grove High School senior Lauren Annette, of New London, Szoke said the 4-H Holiday Care Packages Program welcomes the gift giver and the gift recipient to join together in the spirit of the holidays.

"This is a complete community endeavor that's embracing all those who come to our attention that looking for ways to gift as well as those who are suffering," Szoke said.

By working with a number of other community outreach groups, Szoke said that the packages program has already received many generous donations so far this year ... and that they've given nearly everything away.

The problem is, she said, there are still a number of families who are going without the essentials this holiday season that their organization is hoping to help.

While Szoke lauded the efforts of the organization and its donors so far, the number of families that are suffering continues to grow, while the supplies continue to dwindle away.

"The store is pretty bare right now," Szoke said, adding that the packages program has already given away 156 winter coats, dozens of care packages -- even a few gifts to families and children who have nothing.

The 4-H Holiday Care Packages Program takes place from late November through mid-January and is accepting donations of everything from cash and grocery store gift cards to foodstuffs, coats, toys, personal care items and other small gifts.

Szoke said that this last-minute drive is a huge plea for some families she labeled as in "desperate need" that would otherwise be left with very little.

"This program has been very successful ever since it started in 1998," Szoke said. "Now I'm just hoping Santa will come back and restock everything one more time."

Started 11 years ago as part of a Fiesta community celebration, the 4-H Holiday Care packages Program engages partners with the Chester County Intermediate Unit Migrant Education Program, the Chester County Maternal Child Health Consortium Kennett Family Center, Camp Dreamcatcher, Chester County Futures and the Penn State Chester County Nutrition Links Program in reaching out at the holidays to individuals and families.

For more information, please contact Laurie Szoke, at 610-696-3500/ Extension 19 or 484-716-5714 and by e-mail at Las7@psu.edu.

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