FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — The parade of cars, decked out with lights and tinsel and blaring their horns, turned into the court of the Garden Inn in Spotsylvania County.
Bringing up the rear was a trailer full of wrapped gifts and Santa Claus seated in the back of a truck.
Tinsley Hart, 6, and her sister Kali, 8, were so excited that they ran out of their room barefoot and in short sleeves to greet the parade, which was organized by local nonprofit Transitions 4 You to deliver presents and holiday cheer to families living in area motels.
"I think it's a unicorn!" said Tinsley, clutching a wrapped box and jumping up and down.
"I think it's a doll—a Barbie doll!" said Kali.
Transitions 4 You delivered gifts to at least 60 children on Tuesday evening, Executive Director Lisa Harris said.
Harris and her husband, Neal, founded the faith-based nonprofit five years ago. Their mission is to empower and educate housing-insecure families so they can escape their situations and gain stability. Transitions 4 You started its work at four motels in the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania area and recently expanded to Stafford County.
Families who are accepted into their program receive case management and support. They take classes to learn stress management, how to cook healthy food and how to balance a budget.
"These are things we might take for granted, but our families have to learn these skills," Harris said. "Most come carrying reasons why they're living homeless, so we definitely have to work on that."
The end goal is for families to move out of the motels—which Harris said can be more costly per month than a rent or mortgage payment—and into stable housing.
Transitions 4 You has worked with landlords and local church groups and other area nonprofits, such as Ellie's Elves, to fix up houses for clients.
"Most of our transitions do come together like that because we have a lot of people that come together," Harris said.
She said that all the families who have moved out of the motels have been able to maintain stable housing.
Harris also hopes Transitions 4 You will raise awareness in the broader community of the difficulties faced by motel families.
"I think people don't understand, really," Harris said. "I know there is a stigma out there. Not everybody in a motel is on drugs or in prostitution—that's not the case. We minister to kids every week, youth and teens, and parents who don't want to be there, but don't know what to do to get out of there."
Harris said the number of families Transitions 4 You serves has grown this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We have doubled the amount of people at one location that we serve," she said. "It's been huge because people lose work.
"One girl we got a call from (this month), she is escaping an abusive relationship and she has a 2-month-old and 2-year-old. So we reached out to get her food and to have her room paid for. We're trying to get her into Empowerhouse. Those are the types of situations we have."
This spring, shortly after the pandemic started, Transitions held an Easter parade for motel families.
"We just thought, 'We've got to do something for our kids,' " Harris said. "We usually do a big Easter party and we couldn't because of COVID. The feedback from the families and kids (about the parade) was just amazing. They just absolutely loved it."
When they couldn't do the annual Christmas party either, they decided to host another parade.
Each child in the program was sponsored by someone from the community and received a personalized gift. Other local families donated extra presents, so no child would have to go without.
"It wasn't hard to find sponsors," Harris said.
"We're excited," she continued. "Our thing is, if we have it to give, we want to give it."