Christmas gift double-dippers land on naughty list

Volunteers and gift donors put a lot of time and money into making the annual “Pennies from Heaven” Christmas distribution a success for needy families. But over the years the charitable effort has become a target for double-dippers taking advantage of the goodwill.

CLARION - Most people try to be nice at Christmas but some people are naughty and now they are on a list. Renee Vowinckel, the chair and founder of the Salvation Army's "Pennies from Heaven" program is in charge of the list and she does check it twice.

"I work a lot with people who need help but we are finding a lot of duplication," she said.

It has become a big issue in the Clarion area.

"Some people will go to the school to get help for Christmas, others will go a certain group or to a certain church," she said. "Then the parents take half of the stuff back to get the cash back and the kids don't get anything.

"It is mind-numbing the games people play."

Vowinckel said she even found one person sell the gift items she received on the Internet.

"She had photos and listed everything," recalled Vowinckel. "It was all the stuff she had on our list. She is done with us for life."

Through the Salvation Army and Pennies from Heaven and hopefully the local ministerium, Vowinckel hopes for more collaboration.

"I already work with schools and check very vigilantly that they (recipients of donations) are not going to other places," explained Vowinckel. "They sign a paper when they are picking up gifts stating they are not going elsewhere."

There was a loophole however.

"Some unmarried couples would go to different places and register as single parents and get gifts at more than one place," Vowinckel said. "Now we have changed the whole thing to make them certify that their children have not received gifts anywhere else. It is always a word game.

"You would be amazed the kids these people realize they have when they come to pick up gifts. They will say they forgot one of the kids when they called to register. How do you forget one of your kids?"

Vowinckel said sometimes the children do not live with the parent but with another parent in another home or even another state.

"They don't have custody of them," she said. "So we have made them bring in their custody papers. I spend as much time on checking people as I do shopping."

Vowinckel shops year round, buying gifts on sale when she can.

Occasionally there is actual theft.

"One year it was cold so we let people inside while we were still getting set up," said Vowinckel. "There were two tables by the door and by the time we were ready to start those two tables were totally cleaned off. People would take the stuff and run back to their cars with the gifts."

There is a penalty for duplication.

"When I get the papers and I find they have cheated they will not be eligible the next year," she said. "I have had 48 people who called to enroll this year and they got help somewhere else last year.

"They will say they didn't but I have the sheets with their signature on them. If they do it a second time then they are done for life."

Pennies from Heaven is not government funded.

"It is all private donations therefore I can pick and choose," Vowinckel explained. "If I accepted government grants I would have to provide for everyone."

Vowinckel said almost all local schools do their own Christmas program but last year Clarion-Limestone turned their program over to her.

"The school staff told me they would take the kids shopping and then they wouldn't see the kids wearing the clothes," said Vowinckel. "So they will give me the donations and let us take care of it."

The change, said Vowinckel, has helped reduce double-dipping.

"It's just become a big racket. Sometimes the parents will take the presents from their kids, exchange the presents for cash which they will use for cigarettes or drugs," she said. "I was ready to quit ‘Pennies from Heaven' just because of all of the games. I feel that people who are working and donate shouldn't be supporting the ones who are game playing."

Vowinckel said "pennies From Heaven" is now a "working" program.

"So many people who work don't qualify for so many other programs and this helps them," Vowinckel said. "All they have to do is show us a paystub that proves they are working. A lot of times, people who work are just over the income limit to receive help with heat or other things."

Vowinckel said the effort to prevent abuse of the gift program is serious business.

"They don't think we are checking but we are. It is a pain but we are hoping that by doing this they will tell other people that we do check," said Vowinckel.

December 12 is the 2019 distribution for Pennies from Heaven at the Zion Church in Clarion.

"I will be there with my list," Vowinckel promised.