When Michelle Hood heard that Sarah’s House had shifted its holiday donations to a virtual format this year, she went online, too. She asked her Facebook friends to consider donating just one item from the Amazon wish lists the program had posted, and the result was powerful.

“You think it’s such a big world, and one person could not make a difference – but they really can,” she said.

As the holiday season approached, dozens of boxes began arriving daily at Sarah’s House, sent by Hood’s family, her friends and other donors. Each box represented an outpouring of support for the program, which offers emergency shelter, supportive housing and an array of other services to families experiencing homelessness in Anne Arundel County.

Piles of gifts donated to Sarah’s House this season

“It has been hugely successful,” said Kelly Anderson, director of the Catholic Charities program, of the online wish lists. She described spending many evenings sorting through the mountains of packages with her sons.

A shift in giving

In previous years, Sarah’s House approached the holidays differently. People in the community would “adopt” families staying in the supportive housing units, donating packages that might include age-appropriate toys for children along with laundry detergent or kitchen supplies. For people staying in the shelter, Sarah’s House accepted a wide range of donations, and guests selected what fit their family.

COVID-19 made both approaches challenging, Anderson said. The pandemic affected many incomes, making it harder for people to adopt an entire family, even if they still wanted to give, and pandemic-related protocols prevented most in-person giving. The wish-list approach also allowed Sarah’s House to focus donations on what it needed most.

“It’s fantastic to get 300 baby toys, but we’re a shelter, so if we don’t have any babies on property, it does us no good,” Anderson said.

Presents assembled for adult guests at Sarah’s House

Eye-opening local needs

Hood saw the wish lists as another way to support a program she learned about seven years ago, when her son’s high school football team wanted to donate a meal locally. The first time the team visited the facility, Anderson, whose son was also on the team, gave them a tour and explained the needs Sarah’s House fills in Anne Arundel County.

“It was just very eye-opening for me and my family,” Hood said. “We live right down the street. It’s so easy to get there and give back.”

This fall, Hood planned to collect donations and take kids staying at Sarah’s House shopping around Christmastime. Though COVID-19 quashed those plans, social media allowed her to reach more people – a large football network, co-workers and others – connecting them with an easy opportunity to give.

Anderson said the success of the Amazon approach may prompt Sarah’s House to post wish lists throughout the year.

“People want to support their own community,” she said. “We have a ton of support in Anne Arundel County, and we’re grateful for it!”