Angels Among Us

by Lisa Dawson

Thamara Millan remembers her time teaching at Rodgers Elementary in Frisco Independent School District (FISD) during the mid-90s and seeing kids from underprivileged families struggle at school and home. “At that time in Frisco, there was a large influx of immigrants and migrant working families,” she says. “I had many of these children in my second and third-grade classes, and I decided I wanted to visit every single one of them at home.” She says visiting their homes and witnessing first-hand their living conditions and how families struggled inspired her to begin buying supplies and gifts. “There was one family I visited, and their daughter was unable to move her legs. Where they were living didn’t even meet her basic needs,” she says. “It was also difficult because many of the teachers couldn’t communicate with the parents, most of whom didn’t speak English. It was a hard time. I knew I had to do something.”

 

 That was a turning point for Millan personally and her work as Chief Executive Officer and Founder of Small World With Love, a not-for-profit organization that focuses on the needs of children and their education. Part of that organization includes a program known as the Small World Angel program, which helps families in need by providing them with gifts and essential items during the holiday season. What started as a program by a single individual in one classroom at just one school has now expanded to seventy-eight schools in the district. Each campus that participates is involved in giving back to families in the community in some way. The organization has also expanded to include a back-to-school program and has developed a relationship with Collin College, which provides a scholarship to a student in the program that includes two years of tuition at an accredited school, books, and mentorship. 

 

 This year, on December 14th, volunteers will gather together to distribute clothing, supplies, home items, and gifts for underprivileged families who sign up for assistance. With generous efforts from the community, including parents and local businesses, items are collected at area schools and then distributed from a central location to families who are struggling during the holidays. The Small World Angel program has its origins in Frisco ISD but has since expanded to McKinney, Little Elm, and The Colony. Frisco ISD was an early supporter of Millan when she began single-handedly gathering items for families and quickly ran out of space to store them. “I ran out of room at home and asked our principal at the time if I could use storage space at the school to keep the items, and she agreed,” says Millan. “Having the support of the administration of Frisco ISD was enormously helpful in those early days.”

 

 Millan refers to the one day in December that gifts are distributed as Distribution Day, or affectionately by its nickname, “D Day.” It’s a fitting reference, given the coordination, logistical planning, and team effort it takes to organize holiday packages for over one thousand children and families. With FISD Transportation West designated as home base, volunteers help hand out gifts to each family and also arrange transportation of items too big to take home, like bikes, beds, and other large items. For these items, they have the use of a van donated by North Central Ford. Millan says volunteers with trucks also help by making deliveries to families without a vehicle. “We have a large number of volunteers who take turns during a long day,” says Millan. She notes anywhere from fifty to one hundred program volunteers are on-site throughout D Day. 
The Small World Angel program is available to families who participate in the Free & Reduced meal program in Frisco ISD. A link with information is sent to families each fall, and by providing basic information such as what is needed, holiday gift requests, clothing sizes, and more, the information is then received by Millan and her team. Monica Clift, a counselor at Taylor Elementary in Frisco ISD, says she cannot remember a year she has not helped the program in her twenty years with the district. “The fact that we are taking care of our own and helping students understand that they are bringing joy and happiness to other students in our area is so important,” says Clift. 

 

 She acknowledges many volunteers and program managers work together to ensure every angel adopted gets what they need, as well as what they asked for, during the holidays. “I don’t think one year has gone by in my eight years as the Taylor counselor that every angel didn’t have their entire wish list fulfilled. Additionally, our parent volunteers always love helping me sort the gifts and check off the lists to make sure that everything is ready for pickup. Small World Angel program is truly a community effort in every sense of the word at my school,” says Clift. “It is one of the highlights of our year!”
 Everest Pearson remembers distinctly one D Day in particular when his family received gifts as part of the Small World Angel program during the holidays. He says his parents, sister, and two brothers were blessed to receive gifts the first year they were part of the program. “Something that really stands out to me when I think back to that very first Christmas when Small World Angels provided gifts for me and my family. That year, I really wanted a leather jacket, and my family didn’t have the money to buy me that kind of present,” says Pearson. “I was able to get that leather jacket through the program, and I remember how excited I was to finally be able to have it.” He says he owns that leather jacket to this day and still wears it, although not as much. “I would wear that jacket everywhere, and I was so proud of it. I received that gift because of the Small World Angel program, and I will always be grateful to them for that gift.” Today, Pearson is attending Collin College as part of the Small World scholarship program where he is pursuing an associate degree in fine science. He says he hopes to become a firefighter. 
 Cindy Slavin, Co-Director of the program, has been volunteering for close to fifteen years. She and other volunteers take responsibility for one hundred participants and make sure each and every one of their angels gets what they wanted and needed. They are responsible for checking the angel’s list against what is in the bag submitted by the angel adoptee, and once a bag is complete, it’s tied with a pink ribbon and marked as complete. Frisco ISD makes their Transportation West training rooms and adjacent parking areas available as a staging area for gifts. 

 “Helping out on Distribution Day is the best,” says Slavin. “You get to see the parent’s faces when you are able to make their family’s holiday better. One of my favorite memories is when a little girl was wanting a violin. I was able to work with a local music store and get one donated. I was there at Distribution Day when the family came to pick up their items, and the girl was so excited about getting the violin. It was a great feeling to know you had something to do with the joy she experienced that day.”
 Millan has seen a lot during more than two decades since beginning the program, yet there is one D Day that sticks out prominently in her mind. “I was in the bus barn at the time, and I was waiting for one last person to come pick up their gifts. There was no heat, and it was freezing. A woman showed up and I offered to help her with her three bags,” Millan says. She mentions that the woman repeatedly declined her offer to help, but Millan insisted. “Going to her car, I noticed kids sleeping, and the car had lots of things in it. I saw no place to put everything. I told her I would put them in my car and follow her to her home. Suddenly, this mother broke down sobbing and told me she was now homeless,” she says. “She was headed with her possessions and kids to her parents that evening. We hugged so hard. I helped her break down everything to fit in the car, being careful not to disturb her sleeping babies. I gave her all the cash I had, worried that she would need gas and have enough money to feed the kids. That night, I went home with a heavy heart,” says Millan. “Remembering that story confirms for me that is my calling and my purpose in life. I am here to help people and kids – these angels — in need.”

Lisa Dawson is a professional writer and mom of three. She is grateful to call Frisco home since 2013.

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