SALT LAKE CITY — Hundreds of abused, neglected and at-risk children and teens will be receiving something special for Christmas this year, thanks to the Youth Services Angel Tree campaign.
The project, now in its ninth year, is put on by ShelterKids, a private, nonprofit arm of Salt Lake County Youth Services that raises money and collects donations to provide needed items to children.
“There’s a lot of teens out there that are forgotten at this time and all year round, but any support that you can provide is greatly appreciated,” said Jean John, a ShelterKids board member.
County employees and community members can go to the north building of the Salt Lake County Government Center, 2001 S. State, and choose a tree ornament made by volunteers and youths in county programs. Participants then purchase the item listed on the ornament — such as a coat, a game or a movie — and bring the gift back to the giving tree.
“Kids in foster care and often that are homeless and in other situations don’t really have family sometimes or people that can care for them, so we really hope that the community and our county employees will help us in terms of giving these kids a great holiday season like we all deserve,” said Pat Berckman, director of Salt Lake County Youth Services.
Contributions will be collected through Dec. 19 and distributed to kids from infants to 18 years old who are served by Salt Lake County Youth Services.
Mohammed Matthes used to be one of those kids.
"There's a lot of teens out there that are forgotten at this time and all year round, but any support that you can provide is greatly appreciated."
Matthes grew up in East Africa and was adopted by people in Utah when he was 15. The situation “didn’t work out,” he said, so he left his adoptive parents after about a year and was in foster homes until he aged out.
Matthes said Salt Lake County Youth Services has been invaluable.
“They’ve helped me so much to become the person I am today," he said. "These guys have been beside me when I’m struggling.”
Matthes said he’ll always remember the help he’s received, especially the time when Anthony Martinez, from the Milestone Transitional Housing Program, helped him move.
“Nobody would’ve helped me,” he said. “I mean, it’s my responsibility to do all of those things, but he volunteered to help me, and I will never forget that.”
Martinez said the program helps teens aging out of the foster care system to transition into adulthood on their own. He said 25 youths have benefited from the program so far this year.
“(Matthes) needed to learn those skills and needed help moving into starting his college experience,” Martinez said. “That’s where some of us would have parents to help us to do those things. And we recognize that there are people who don’t have those people, and we try to help fill those gaps and give them that support.”
Now 19, Matthes is busy playing intramural soccer and studying at the University of Utah. He said it’s going well and he’s loving it.
Matthes is just one success story to come out of the 8,000 youths helped annually by Salt Lake County Youth Services. Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said between 5 percent and 7 percent of American teens become homeless each year, and 500 or more homeless youths are in Salt Lake Valley at any time.
“This holiday season gives all of us an opportunity to help make life a little bit brighter for these kids,” McAdams said. “No one should be left out.”