UNION COUNTY — “I think the whole process of the Christmas Bureau is what keeps the hope alive,” says Gloria Haney, senior volunteer services coordinator for the Union County Division of Social Services.

Unwrapping gifts on Christmas morning is meant to bring joy and hope to local children and families. It figures to be a bright spot at the end of what has been a miserable year by nearly anyone’s standards.

Haney helps direct the Union County Christmas Bureau, a non-profit organization that assists families in need by collecting and donating Christmas gifts for children and food for families. The Bureau relies on collaborations with local businesses, churches, schools and civic groups as well as volunteers to help families in need during the holidays.

Haney said the number of people who applied for assistance from the Bureau is less than average; the nonprofit is extending its application deadline to Dec. 4.

Because of the COVID pandemic, the Bureau is taking applications over the phone instead of in person.

The Bureau served as many as 1,600 people in 2019, but this year, Haney said it has not had 1,000 applications yet. As of Wednesday (Nov. 18), they are between 450 to 500 applications lower than they would have been this time last year, she said.

An application to the Bureau for assistance provides information about a child’s age, gender, clothing sizes and wish lists.

Volunteers take the wish lists and combs through tables stacked with donated items to see which gifts match the wish lists the best.

The number of applications may have decreased, but the number of stockings has actually increased, Haney said. Stockings are available to people in the community who would like to buy gifts for a child within an age range rather than purchasing items for a wish list. Too, stocking can be made for seniors and disabled adults.

Stockings can be picked up at the Bureau from 8 a.m. — 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Haney advised calling and letting the Bureau know about your arrival prior to getting a stocking.

Annually, Atrium Health Union in Monroe and McGee Corp in Matthews deliver hundreds of bicycles each to the Bureau.

Last year, Atrium donated more than 500 bikes and in 2018, McGee donated 100 bikes.

Haney said Atrium is planning to donate bikes on Dec. 3. McGee Corp is scheduling a day to donate another 100 bicycles.

The Bureau is always looking for more volunteers. It is located in the former Sears store at the Monroe Mall — a 90,000 square foot facility which makes social distancing between volunteers easy to manage.

Those who volunteer wear masks while sorting gift items. Once a gift bag has been filled, it is set aside for at least 72 hours.

When the Bureau distributes gift bags, applicants will stay in their cars and small groups of volunteers will place the gift bags in the cars. Volunteers will be required to wear face masks and protective equipment they have to stay safe.

When the Bureau hands out gift bags next month it may be extended over a longer period of time and it may not serve as many people during the day in an effort to maintain social distancing between volunteers, Haney said.

She said the Bureau in the past served between 15 and 18 families every 15 minutes; however, this year they may serve 10 families at a time to properly socially distance.

Anyone wanting to support the Bureau at home can do so by sponsoring a child or family.

Because of the pandemic, Haney said the Bureau has lost many of it’s sponsorships like churches who may not have in person sermons yet.

Sponsors in the past would have had Christmas trees with names of either children or families attached on ornaments that congregants could choose and purchase gifts for; however, if some churches are not meeting in person yet, they aren’t able to have a tree supporting the Bureau.

For those who would like to sponsor one child or several children, Haney said: “What we ask them to do is buy a complete clothing outfit for every child, that is complete with shirt, pants, shoes, socks, underwear and then four to five gifts that’s on the child’s wish list.”

Anyone interested in requesting assistance from the Union County Christmas Bureau can call 704-296-4828 through Friday, Dec. 4. If they would like to help, they can pick up stockings, sponsor a family, children, a child, a senior or a disabled adult. Those who would like to help can call 704-296-4312.