CARY — About this time every year, a petite Cary grandmother borrows a friend’s dump truck and starts trolling around Wake County, loading it with bag after bag full of Christmas gifts.
Much like the real Santa, 64-year-old Babs Wagner doesn’t get to see the smiles of the children who rip the paper off these presents. Social workers and others will pass them on to their caregivers.
But as a volunteer who works all year as an advocate for abused or neglected children, she knows firsthand the impact these packages can have.
“The gifts themselves are really great for these kids,” she says, “but the feeling that they’re important enough for someone to give them a gift is priceless.”
This year, the Friends of Wake Guardian Ad Litem will deliver gifts to more than 1,000 Wake County children, from newborns to teenagers. Most are in foster care or living with relatives after being removed from their parents’ homes. Others are from families that are struggling so hard to live day by day that Christmas is an impossible luxury.
Over the years, the number of children involved has roughly tripled as more agencies and nonprofits started referring children to the program. Wagner leads the effort, finding donors across Wake County to provide both necessities such as clothes and shoes and at least one “wish” item for each child.
Kim Bunn gave Wagner the names and wishes of more than 90 children who have been placed with relatives in an effort to avoid foster care. Unlike foster parents, relatives don’t get expense money when they take children in – and many are grandparents with fixed incomes.
Bunn says Wagner’s personal commitment to each child keeps this and other programs for these children going strong.
“She makes you feel like these kids you’re looking after are the only kids in the world,” says Bunn, a social worker with the Eastern Regional Center of Wake County Human Services. “I know there is a 100 percent chance that child is going to have a Christmas. She makes it happen.”
Working difficult cases
Wagner grew up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. She went to college in Washington, D.C., but got married and settled into being a mom before she finished her four-year degree. She had three children with her first husband before they divorced, and a fourth after she remarried.
She taught fitness classes while her children were younger, but when her husband wanted to start his own company selling equipment for computer companies, she took over as his accountant and bookkeeper, which she still does.
The couple moved to Cary in the 1980s, when the growth of IBM and other technology companies provided good business opportunities for them.
Wagner first got started with child advocacy when her youngest son was having problems in middle school, and she wanted to make up for the extra attention he needed to succeed.
“He was a challenging child,” she says. “So I said I’d help with other kids if they would help me with mine.”
She started out as a tutor and was eventually asked to meet with a young girl who was struggling to pass the eighth grade. The details of the girl’s home life shocked Wagner.
The girl had missed 60 days of school, in part because she had an infant at home, and she couldn’t trust the baby’s grandmother, who had been in and out of jail for prostitution, to baby sit. A sister who had watched the child for her had been shot and killed. The entire family had been evicted from a public housing complex and was living in a homeless shelter.
The girl had another sister who shared a birthday with one of Wagner’s sons, and Wagner marveled at how tragically different their situations were.
“I looked at them and thought ‘How could this child be born into that family, and another child born into mine?’ ” Wagner says. “She had all this going against her.”
‘Give it your best shot’
Wagner helped the girl and her sister get food stamps and other services, encouraged them and stayed in touch. The girls, now in their 30s, are living stable lives, Wagner says.
Soon after, she started volunteering as a guardian ad litem, who advocates for a child in court when the child has been taken from his or her parents because of abuse or neglect. Guardians interview family members, teachers and others before making a recommendation to a judge on whether the child should return to their parents, stay with relatives, or go into foster care.
It’s difficult and sometimes depressing work, Wagner admits. She has seen children cycle through numerous placements, falling behind in school as a result of the constant changes until they drop out and continue in the same cycles as their parents: early pregnancy, drug abuse, crime. Others return home to face more abuse, or are so traumatized they never fully recover.
“You just give it your best shot and let go of hoping for the best outcome every time, because if you judge all the stuff you do on the happily ever after, it’s really hard,” she says.
Christmas for all
The Friends of Wake Guardian Ad Litem program was formed 22 years ago to provide extra support for these children and the people who care for them. Wagner started volunteering there a few years after it formed. She also runs another program that provides backpacks and school supplies for the start of school.
Throughout the year, the group fulfills special requests: providing a mattress for a child who’s sleeping on the floor; paying a month’s electricity bill; matching children with donated computers.
During the Christmas season, Wagner oversees a team of volunteers and personally collects gifts for 450 children – plus a few last-minute requests that are still trickling in. “I never say no,” she says.
Over the years, the gift operation has become more streamlined, with tags color-coded by the agency receiving the gifts, double-taped and loaded into contractor-quality clear plastic bags.
She picks up from law offices, a Realtors’ group, and schools. At one pick-up this week at Chesterbrook Academy in Cary, children threw bags of presents into the truck – 101 boxes bought for 15 children by school families. Some of the students pointed out the ones they picked out with their parents.
“It’s a chance for them to make another child happy,” says teacher’s aide Jill Rinehart, who coordinated the effort.
Next she heads to a warehouse to pick up more bags. Flipping through the pages of her clipboard of referrals, she notes the sad stories behind these cheerful bundles – homeless families, children orphaned by breast cancer, abandoned by their mothers.
“Each referral has a bit about the child and situation, and it’s heartbreaking to read them,” she says. “But it’s also great to see how generous people in this community are willing to help them.”
Later this week, when all the gifts are delivered, she’ll turn to shopping for her own four children and nine grandchildren.
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