With so much talk about positive COVID-19 cases, people can use some positive community news.

Epic, the healthcare software company headquartered in Verona, participated in a Dane County program that helped families in need during the 2021 holiday season.

Epic’s staff supported 60 families – including one that has seven children. That family was a last minute referral on Dec. 22. Epic raised $1,265 in four hours for that family alone and Dane County social worker Heather Soehle ran out to Target that same day to purchase the items the family needed.

Epic employee Jamie Bjorklund was the person at the company who raised awareness about the program to help drum-up sponsors. After Bjorklund helped spread the word, there was a large increase in hosts from Epic. There were a total of 59 Epic donors.

“During the week of Christmas, we received multiple last minute referrals, two of which were very large families, one of seven children and one of eight children,” Soehle said. “We had already used up all our other monetary donations the week prior thinking we had received our last referral. We also had zero hosts left. My partner reached out to Jamie and Epic staff and within no time, Jamie was on it. I was told to check my Venmo and I was astonished, overwhelmed, and overjoyed to see not one but two very large monetary donations for us to shop with in order to ensure we fulfilled every last HAF referral. The week of Christmas we received two large donations from Epic staff, $1500 and $1250, so that we could fulfill those last minute family referrals.”

The total amount donated by Epic staff was far more than $2,750 – that amount was just the two donations given the week of Christmas to help with last-minute referrals of families during the holidays. Though, Soehle doesn’t actually know the total amount donated by Epic staff since they were individual supporters.

“Out of all our donors, 59 were Epic staff,” she said. “Each individual host decides what size family they host and how much they spend. We do not ask how much they spend and we do not track details like what kinds of gifts families got. This program meets the needs of hundreds of kids so it is almost impossible to track that as you can imagine.”

Soehle runs the“Holiday Host A Family Program. The program supports families -- many low-income or homeless -- who have someone assigned from the county like a social worker or juvenile officer and have a demonstrated need for items around the holidays. Those needs include groceries and household goods, and also gifts for the kids.

Social workers also use the monetary donations to put together baskets of items, usually cleaning supplies, hygiene, snacks, family fun games, to be used at the last minute as needed.

The program only supports families who have an assigned county social worker or juvenile officer – it’s not open to the public or community at large. This includes families who are assigned a caseworker through child protective services, either as an investigation or on an ongoing basis. And kinship families -- those raising members of their own extended family who would otherwise be in foster care -- are also supported by the program

The Holiday Host a Family Program started in 1979 in partnership with a local church, and Dane County took on the program solo around 2016.

Also among the families supported are teens who are in facilities, hospitals, and don’t go home for the holidays, or often don’t have family.

All families are referred by their social worker and have a demonstrated need.

“These families often live off of donations, secondhand all year, so when they receive new items around the holidays, it’s a big deal,” Soehle said.

This year, the program had a total of 234 hosts, the most it has ever had, she said. It helped 267 families, with a total of 697 children.

“We have never had to turn a HAF referral away,” Soehle said. “I have gotten really good at being creative, using all our resources and connections within the community to ensure every single family referral is fulfilled. The workers whose referrals were fulfilled in the days leading up to Christmas were so thankful with this program’s last minute efforts to meet the dreams and needs of their families.”

But this year, thanks to the giving nature of the 59 Epic staff, Soehle didn’t have to worry so much about “being creative” to fulfill all her referrals.

“We usually match around 190-200 hosts each year, but this year we had a significant increase in hosts due to Epic’s recruitment,” she said. “With their recruitment, we were able to accept more referrals than we normally do. The generosity of Epic staff was amazing.”

Reporter Neal Patten can be reached at npatten@wisconsinmediagroup.com

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