Nicole Kepler has plenty to be thankful for this holiday season.
Beyond the usual friends and family, including her two young daughters, Ms. Kepler has a support system that has been by her side since she first found out she would be a mother.
The Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center welcomed Ms. Kepler and daughters Cheyanne, 5, and Jayda, 3, into its Early Head Start program when they were toddlers, as well as the Head Start preschool program they are in now.
Not to mention Darcel Robinson of Hazelwood, one of the in-home visitors from Early Head Start who help foster child and parental development.
"Miss Darcel, I have a bond with her. I can tell her anything," said Ms. Kepler, 22, of Arlington, who also was in the Early Head Start program as a child.
She also remembers when someone at the center first submitted her name to the Marine Corps Toys for Tots program, which the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette helps support with its Goodfellows Fund. Since then, even if Ms. Kepler was on bed rest and couldn't work, her daughters were able to have a little something extra under the Christmas tree.
"Any help counted, to me," Ms. Kepler said, adding that one of the girls' favorite gifts of the past few years, a Hello Kitty airplane, was from Toys for Tots.
But Cheyanne and Jayda know that Santa Claus won't have much incentive to visit their house unless they put out the reindeer food (carrots and oatmeal) and, of course, milk and cookies on Christmas Eve. Ms. Kepler will be the first to admit she wasn't always the biggest holiday enthusiast, but now she doesn't have much of a choice.
"Cheyanne's favorite holiday is Christmas, so I try as best as I can," she said with a smile. "Our Christmas tree is missing three things off of it, but she doesn't care, she wants it up. Santa doesn't come unless the decorations are up."
Little things like that speak to what she has learned as a young mother in Early Head Start, working with people like Ms. Robinson.
"She's always at the children's appointments on time, making sure they have their physicals and immunizations," said Ms. Robinson, who has worked with Early Head Start for five years and Ms. Kepler for three. "She's a well-rounded mother. She also helps a lot of other parents out, as well. Any time she has good information that will help them, she lets them know."
That level of parental development is what Pam Dickinson envisions in her role as coordinator for the in-home visitors at Early Head Start, for which children are eligible from birth to age 3.
"Really, it's a family focus," Ms. Dickinson said. "Our home visitors don't go in and say, 'I'm going to entertain your child for an hour and a half.' It's about the parent engaging with the child."
According to Ms. Kepler, Cheyanne's experience with Early Head Start helped prepare her for preschool in a number of areas -- from knowing her colors and ABCs to understanding how to interact with other children. The program also helped recognize a delay in Jayda's physical development, which allowed Ms. Kepler to find a physical therapist and pinpoint her daughter's need for an individualized education program.
"They teach them about how to serve themselves, eat off a plate, brush their teeth," Ms. Kepler said. "So they know when they get [to preschool] what they're doing, and there's not a big gap in between."
Ms. Dickinson said all 70 children her agency works with will take part in Toys for Tots this Christmas, not just those from the 48 families who meet with in-home visitors.
"We always get nice things, but this year they were extremely organized and we got some really great toys for our children," Ms. Dickinson said. "We as an agency buy a couple nice gifts, but we take these in a black bag so the parents can wrap it up and say, 'This is from me.'
"So I think they do really appreciate it."
Ms. Kepler, who last year waited in line at the Toys for Tots warehouse in the Strip District, said she does. Although her daughters are happy with any presents they get, Jayda's eyes lit up at the mere mention of Hello Kitty, and Cheyanne is "into educational toys -- she wants to read so bad."
This year will be Ms. Kepler's first handling the Christmas duties on her own at her new home with her daughters and a few other close family members. And even if she does feel a bit overwhelmed when the time comes, it's just another responsibility those around her have helped prepare her for.
"She's very hard-working, always energetic, never complains," Ms. Robinson said. "She does everything for them -- her kids are with her all the time.
"She's very dedicated to her kids and her family."
Since 1947, the Post-Gazette's Goodfellows Fund has worked to ensure that every child receives a toy at Christmas. Tax-deductible contributions to the fund can be made by visiting www.post-gazette.com/goodfellows. Every contribution is acknowledged in the newspaper.
Today's total: $10,642
Grand total: $87,446.33
In honor of Gene & Diane Natali $2,500
Steven Husted and Marie Connolly $500
Jeff & Stephanie Gordon, Hannah and Hunter Gordon $500
R.K. Galey family $500
In memory of Fred, Eldora and John Henry Threlfall $300
Rebecca J. Caserio, M.D. $250
Gary & Trish Sauer $250
Alan Steinberg and Patty Mooney $210
In honor of The O'Brien 6 $200
Almes and Mauser Families $150
In memory of Dorothy Hart and Bill & Ruth Goode $130
Candy & Kent Brand $101
In memory of Grace R. Gillen $101
Leeanne Monteverde $100
Tom & Cindy Wojtasiak $100
John G. Kolonich Jr. $100
Cecilia Halle $100
Jory Richman $100
Sally Ruffin $100
Lois Hart $100
Ron & Pat Bolster $100
Carolyn Schreiber $100
In honor of Jonathan Manns, Andrew Price, and Jackson Manns $100
Richard March $100
William Patterson $100
John Pessamato $100
In memory of William Lunz $100
In memory of Mr. & Mrs. Robert Dickey III $100
Mary Zervos $100
Nancy L. Huggins $100
Dr. John R. Orie $100
Leo Olshinsky $100
Marcella Wasco $75
Penny Zacharias $75
In memory of Jill Maxwell $75
James Schrmack $50
In loving memory of Dan and Steve $50
Lynn Snyderman and Lewis Hyman $50
In memory of Jeff Kinder $50
Sue Illingworth $50
Gail Wolfe and Kevin Shaver $50
Karen DelSole $50
The Colella family $50
Angel & Owen Mulvaney $50
Ed & Phyllis Appleby $50
In memory of Nona and Elmer Burger, from Elizabeth Burger-Joy $50
JoAnn Hoyt $50
In memory of Len and Kate Splane in memory of Sean Malley $50
Marianne Lutz $50
James & Anne Burnham $50
H. Coyner $50
In memory of Sarah & Walter Pauli $50
Mary Ann Schaefer $50
Ed & Susie Stack $50
David Newell $50
In memory of Gramma Rose $50
Charlotte McNally $50
In memory of Lois Baver Voigt $40
In loving memory of Grace and Elkin Cannoy $40
Thomas Harlee $40
Janice Dobbs $35
Bill & Dee Miller $30
Gift in memory of Eddie Collet $30
Justin & Angelique Morante $25
In memory of Hilary Lopata in memory of Ursula and Chicken Helen $25
In memory of Matthew Pustelak $25
Lynne Lucchino $25
Marilyn Weiss $25
John & Marda Katshir $25
Joanne Melder $25
V.L. Smith $25
Robert Bencivenga family $25
Abby Morrison $25
Carolyn Carswell $25
Marianne L. Taylor $25
In honor of Birth of Holden Ocampo Kear $25
Mr. & Mrs. Dale Murdock $25
Ashley, Cole, Aidan and Ella $20
W.P. Gunderman $20
Robert Levine $20
In loving memory of Steven Faloon $20
Ed & Eileen Palko $20
Rosemary Curran $20
Carol Zalnasky $20
G. Greenleaf $15
Anita V. Cardani $15
Mr. & Mrs. John S. Parish $15
Robert & Lillian Meyers $15
Anna Tarr $10
Shirley M. Brice $10
M. Slagle $10
Marian Thompson $10
Diane & Jackie Seltzer $10
Sadie Lynn Culver $10
Brian Batko: email@example.com.