More than 700 area children stood in line outside a large tent in front of the Smoky Mountain Opry in Pigeon Forge to participate in Operation Snowflake, an outreach program that provides Christmas gifts and meals to area social orphans.
“Social orphans are children whose parents are out of the picture and their relatives are providing them with care,” said Dusty Cantrell, director of the Relative Care Program, a grant-funded program by monies through the Dept. of Children’s Services.
According to Cantrell, social orphans are typically children whose parents are alive but are absent from the child’s lives. This absenteeism is too frequently due to drug use in which the parent is addicted to prescription drugs or illegal drugs. Many of the social orphans have one or both parents in jail. The grandparents, aunts and uncles of these children step up to provide care for the orphans. The Relative Care Program was designed to keep families together and keep children out of state custody.
“It costs the state $1,200 a day to keep each child in state custody,” said Cantrell. “Through the Relative Care Program, the cost to the state for each child is $1,200 for six months.”
Operation Snowflake provides an afternoon of fun for the families of these socially orphaned children. As the children entered the tent they were allowed to select a brand new winter coat, a new toy and some treats. The parents were each given a Christmas turkey and the children took photos with Santa Claus and were treated to a carriage ride. The children sipped on hot chocolate as they waited in line to meet Santa. The cherubic faces of the children lit up as the jolly old elf met them and discussed their Christmas wishes.
Operation Snowflake receives child referrals through The Lord’s Child, a not-for-profit agency. According to Rev. David May of TLC, the need in the community has grown since last year and is expected to continue to grow with no end in sight.
“Last year we provided Christmas gifts to 613 children,” said May. “This year we will have 725 children by the time we serve everyone.”
May said the growing problem of crystal meth and the escalating use of prescription drugs continue to erode the basic foundation of the family unit. Operation Snowflake is intended to ease the financial burden for families taking in the socially orphaned.
“I have seen a family in which seven children were taken in by the grandparents,” said May. “These grandparents were having financial difficulty paying their own bills while living off Social Security then the next thing they know they are supporting seven more people. Currently, there are 5.3 million social orphans in the U.S.”
The children attending Saturday’s giveaway were given a special treat courtesy of Fee/Hedrick Entertainment. After the giveaway the children were treated to a free show.
“We gave each child a choice to either see the Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Show or the Smoky Mountain Opry,” said David Fee of Fee/Hedrick Entertainment. “We have always supported The Lord’s Child.”
In addition to providing the kids with a free show, Fee/Hedrick Entertainment spent more than $35,000 supporting the giveaway.