Angel Tree program adapts to pandemic as more Lowcountry families than ever need holiday help

November 10, 2020
Eastern red cedar lit for the holidays
Dr. Mark Scheurer, chief medical officer of MUSC Children's Hospital, watches as the Angel Tree lights up. He called it a wonderful chance to talk about giving the gift of kindness to others. Photos by Sarah Pack

The coronavirus pandemic has led to a big increase in the number of Lowcountry children whose families are struggling and need holiday help through the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree program. There were about 2,000 angels, or kids in need, in 2019. This year, the total is closer to 3,000.

So the program’s biggest contributor in the Charleston area, the Medical University of South Carolina, is taking on more angels than ever before — more than 2,000 — to help make up the difference. It’s asking employees, who are able, to choose an angel and buy at least some of the items requested so parents will have gifts to give their kids during the holidays.

And MUSC volunteer services coordinator Melissa Kubu said the increase isn’t the only change. “This is the first year we’re going virtual.”

Salvation Army Captain Mike Michels holds an Angel Tree tag while Dr. David Zaas watches. 
Salvation Army Captain Mike Michels presents the first Angel Tree tag of the season to Dr. David Zaas.

Normally, the Salvation Army prints out a card for each child whose parents have asked to be included in the Angel Tree program. The cards go to MUSC and other organizations that agree to help out, where they’re hung on trees for people to pick up. Each card lists a child’s first name, age and gift requests. 

That will still happen this year. But since the pandemic has pushed a lot of people into remote working, most of the angels will be featured online. Salvation Army Captain Mike Michels thanked Kubu for suggesting that. “This year is a different year, and we have had to rethink a lot of things. The MUSC family has helped us reimagine what an Angel Tree can look like.”

Michels made those remarks in front of a living Angel Tree on the Calhoun Street side of the new MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital, just before flipping a switch to light it. The eastern red cedar was planted for that purpose — to be lit during the holidays. 

It’s visible not only to drivers passing by but also to children staying in the hospital. Some of them can see it from their windows. And kids who couldn’t see the tree lighting in person were able to watch a camera feed in their room through the hospital’s GetWellNetwork.

Dr. David Cole and Dr. Mark Scheurer 
Dr. Mark Scheurer and Dr. David Cole at the first Angel Tree lighting ceremony in front of the new MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children's Hospital. The tree is visible to patients and to people driving by on Calhoun Street.

While the Angel Tree lighting was a reminder that the holidays are just around the corner, MUSC President David Cole, M.D., said this is clearly not an average holiday season. “Let's be honest — 2020 is likely not going to hit the history books as the best year ever. And as everyone knows, we're not yet out of the woods,” he said.

“But in the days ahead, I know we can count on the MUSC family to come together. And once again, we want to ensure that children throughout the Lowcountry receive something they want or need during the holiday season. We light the tree and do what we can to continue to shine the light into our community.”

David Zaas, M.D., chief executive officer for MUSC Health’s Charleston Division and chief clinical officer for MUSC Health, said 2020 has been the most challenging year that many people can remember. “I think it makes this holiday season even more important that we appreciate each other and how fortunate we are for the families, the college, the teams that we get to work with every day.”

MUSC has worked with the Salvation Army to make holidays a little happier for Lowcountry kids for almost 20 years. Kubu said she believes MUSC will be able to accommodate the increased demand this year.“It's beautiful to see how much MUSC works together to make this happen, see the happiness that it brings within departments. I think that that's one thing that we think about - how the teams come together to support angels and support children in the community.”

You don’t have to work for MUSC or another organization participating in the Angel Tree program to take part.

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