Rachel Tilson was a member of One Church in Gahanna for just three short months in 2019, when the congregation set out to raise funds to give gift cards to teens in foster care in Franklin County.
Despite still being a relative newcomer, Tilson, 30, didn’t hesitate to step in to help.
After donating herself, she sought donations from friends and family who were willing to either contribute gift cards themselves or have the money to go out and buy them. Tilson also joined other church members by volunteering at booths around the church when the gift cards were dropped off for distribution to Franklin County Children Services.
As with other community members, Tilson’s participation in the gift card campaign has become an annual tradition.
“The experience was amazing; It was so much fun. Everything about the church is homemade,” said Tilson, who lives in New Albany. “The joy on people’s faces when they come over, we would have people with 50 bags of gift cards.”
And although Tilson didn’t know it at the time, the charitable endeavor became the defining annual initiative of One Church, which three years later continues to expand its reach across the state.
At the grand opening, One Church exceeded expectations, raising enough funds to give each of the 775 Franklin County teens in foster care that year three $25 gift cards, said Dionna Carter, director of public affairs the church.
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“It was just so unexpected because we weren’t sure what the reaction would be,” Carter said. “We honestly never expected it to reach this level.”
In the years since, One Church — which Carter says has about 3,200 weekly visitors in person and online — has expanded its reach across Ohio, partnering with businesses, churches and charities to donate $25 gift cards to teens in foster care solicit and distribute care.
As the campaign enters its fourth year, Carter said One Church has raised a total of $635,000 in gift cards for more than 10,000 teenagers.
After providing gift cards worth $274,012 to 4,361 teenagers last year, church leaders expect they will achieve even more this year. As the care system strains, as Ohio families grapple with economic hardship and youth who have been victims of abuse, Carter said the need is greater than ever this year as One Church seeks to give each of the approximately two gift cards worth $25 to provide to 6,400 teens across the state.
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“It’s heartbreaking, but at the same time, this is such a small but tangible way to remind them that they are loved, they are seen, they are not forgotten and their whole community is behind them,” Carter said.
After starting Nov. 12, the fundraiser officially ends Dec. 4 to give One Church volunteers time to ensure the $25 gift cards can be distributed to Ohio teenagers by Christmas, Carter said.
The premise for the gift card campaign came after One Church leaders reached out to Franklin County Children Services in 2019 to ask what type of community service endeavors they could undertake that would be most beneficial to the youth they serve. Carter said. What they’ve heard, Carter said, is that toy rides for younger children in need around Christmas are common, but too often teenagers are overlooked.
“It almost never crossed our minds — when you’re 15 or 16 you don’t care about a Barbie, you don’t want a toy truck,” Carter said. “It gives them that autonomy; they’re growing up wanting their independence, and they get to choose when and how they spend this gift card.”
Though the drive has long since expanded beyond Franklin County borders, last year a total of 650 teens in the county received gift cards for places like Amazon, Target and Raising Canes (one church prefers gift cards donated to be for businesses that have an online presence in case there aren’t brick-and-mortar stores near the teens who get them.)
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As of this year, there are 1,069 children in foster care in Franklin County, of whom 502 are between the ages of 13 and 18, said Kaitlin Kennison, a clerk at Franklin County Children Services.
Young people in foster care often face the harsh reality that they may be spending the holidays alone and that Christmas gifts from loved ones are few and far between. Teens in foster care in Franklin County can list their top three gift card options to ensure they have the best chance of receiving one in a place they enjoy shopping, Kennison said.
“Our kids, who are going through really tough times in their lives, who don’t have anything of their own and maybe think nobody cares about them – when you show up with a couple of these gift cards that are especially for them, it means even more.” ‘ Kennison said. “When I deliver these gift cards, it’s like, ‘Oh my god, she really listened,’ or ‘Oh my god, I don’t have to share that with anyone.'”
It’s that kind of love and comfort that One Church members like Tilson seek to offer, even if they don’t know anyone in foster care personally.
“It’s a very joyous mission to be a part of,” Tilson said. “Because One Church said this is important to us, this is important to God, all of Ohio’s teens are now part of our families and part of our responsibilities.”
To donate to One Church’s Gift Card Campaign for Ohio Foster Teens, visit one.church/foster to find an online donation link and Amazon Wishlist. Gift card donations can be dropped off or mailed to 817 N Hamilton Road, Gahanna, OH 43230.
Eric Lagatta is a reporter with the Columbus Dispatch covering social justice and nonprofit issues.