Nonprofit Assists Local Foster Children
When you hear the term “Santa’s Little Helpers,” visions of tiny creatures scurrying about St. Nick’s workshop making toys might come to mind. Yet for one woman, that phrase has a very different, and very special, meaning.
Michelle Thompson Williams is the founder of a local nonprofit organization called Santa’s Little Helpers, Inc. (SLHI). Williams started the program three years ago as a way to assist Jefferson County’s foster children population. Their mission is to build self-esteem and confidence in foster children through a foundation of literacy, personal growth and development. Their goal is to help impact the livelihood of foster children in Kentucky and Southern Indiana by providing them with the tools to become productive citizens.
Williams was raised in a household of eight children – six girls and two boys – by a single mother, Earlene Thompson, in Jeffersontown. Williams attended Jeffersontown High School and went on to attend the University of Louisville where she received three degrees – a bachelor’s in sociology, a master’s in higher education administration, and a master’s in counseling psychology. She and her husband Wynobie have a young daughter, Alena. Williams is an educator as well as a book author and screenwriter. She also has an unwavering love for the Christmas season, hence the name of her nonprofit.
“When I was a kid, the best time of the year for us was Christmas,” she says. “Things were calm, things were happy, and things were just good. Christmas was just a joyous occasion.”
She, like all children, couldn’t wait until Christmas morning, anticipating what presents she was going to receive. However, there was another reason she loved Christmas so much.
“It was because of my mom,” she says.
Her mother was a homemaker for a while, and during Christmas she would bake cakes and cookies as well as gingerbread houses from scratch.
“I remember walking into the kitchen and seeing the patterns for the houses, and smelling the gingerbread,” Williams says. “I would watch her put these houses together, very meticulously, and they were decorated with all of this candy. It was just amazing.”
For Williams, it was a magical time. It wasn’t just about the presents. It was about the smells, the feelings, the sounds of music, and the all-around Christmas season.
Williams’ mother worked tirelessly to provide for her family, as well as a young man she brought into her home and fostered for some time. Yet, there were occasions when she did turn to others for help.
“That very first year we were on our own, she signed us up for a program through the Jeffersontown Chamber of Commerce so we could have gifts,” Williams says. “I remember going and sitting on Santa’s lap and having pictures taken, and then they’d send us home with lots of presents. There were people out there stepping in to help those in need.”
Williams says her first memory of this was when she was about eight.
Many years later, Williams and her daughter were at home watching Christmas movies on TV when a particular show caught her attention. It was called “Christmas Oranges,” which is about a foster home for young girls who receive an orange for Christmas if they behave.
“This movie was part of my inspiration for the organization,” Williams says. “I had a thought – there are kids out there, like foster children, who may not receive anything for Christmas. This feeling of sadness just came over me, and that is when I came up with Santa’s Little Helpers, Incorporated.”
Williams told her daughter about it, and she became excited and wanted to help her mother. Her husband also wanted to lend his assistance.
Williams began doing research on foster children and the services provided to them in the Louisville area, and she also gathered information about residential facilities. She pulled her board together, which consists of Williams and her sisters Angela Howard and Sharon Ray.
The very first program for Santa’s Little Helpers, Pajamas for Children, took place at Christmas time in 2017.
“I reached out to Joann Childers, who is the activity director at St. Joseph Children’s Home in Louisville,” Williams says. “I wanted to establish a relationship with them. I asked her if they needed pajamas for the kids, because pajamas are universal – everyone needs pajamas. She and I worked together and compiled a list of the children and what sizes were needed. We then went shopping and got the pajamas, wrapped them up and dropped them off for Christmas. The kids were super excited.”
SLHI also works with Operation Open Arms, Inc., a private child-placement agency whose mission is to provide loving home environments to children whose mothers are incarcerated.
“We work with them to provide bags of supplies filled with clothes, pajamas, books, toys, underwear, socks and other items,” Williams explains.
SLHI has other programs in the works.
“We’ve implemented a new program called Keep Our Kids Reading,” Williams says. “We’ve noticed the access to books is limited due to libraries closing and schools being closed due to COVID-19. Libraries have made huge efforts to be in different spots and give out books that way, or allow people to schedule appointments for pickup, but we wanted to make books a little more accessible.”
In order to make books available to children, SLHI took two steps.
“We purchased a Little Free Library and put that right outside of the Hobby Lobby store in the Springhurst Towne Center,” Williams says. “We had to go through their nonprofit and actually purchase the library. Basically, it was about $600 because you have to buy the library plus you have to buy the post it sits on. The libraries are made by the Amish.”
The library was shipped to Williams, who then contacted the property manager at Springhurst to see if she could install it next to the store.
“He was amazing,” she says. “He was excited, he said this will be great, and said they wanted to do more for kids anyway.”
Her husband painted the library and helped install it at its spot.
The grand opening for the Little Free Library took place on July 24. The event also served as a way to introduce the community to Santa’s Little Helpers, Inc. According to Williams, more than 120 people came.
“Our visibility grew and we gained a lot of followers on social media during the next couple of weeks,” she says.
Williams checks on the Little Free Library every Sunday to see how many books are still there, and if they need to add new books.
“Up to this point we’ve put in over 150 books,” she says.
Besides receiving books from the public library, SLHI also received five boxes filled with books, even before the library opened, from Half Price Books on Westport Road. They also have a partnership with the Scholastic Literacy program.
“This allows us to purchase books at a discounted price once all of the books we had are gone,” Williams says.
Another program SLHI runs is called the Book Bag Project.
“We work with the Cabinet for Family and Health Services to donate bags with books in them,” Williams says. “These are given to social workers, so when they pick up a child they can give them a bag to put their belongings in.”
SLHI also began providing virtual story time programs in October, starting with a fall-themed program, then a Thanksgiving program. In December there will be story time with Mrs. Claus.
SLHI has many new plans for the upcoming year.
“In 2021 we will be starting the Future Forward Program,” Williams says. “With this program we’re targeting high school-aged kids. The purpose is to help these children plan for the future. Our focus is going to be helping them explore different pathways based on their passions and interests, to guide them to their next step after foster care. We want to give them their toolkit so they are ready to move forward in life.”
For more info on Santa’s Little Helpers, Inc., including donation details, go to santaslittlehelpersinc.com and call 502-822-6819. If you’d like to donate children’s books to their Little Free Library, the library is located at 4301 Towne Center Drive in Louisville.