SWES toy giveaway

Kristy Bennett, left, and Tammi Arnold of Hanover, Pa. organize items at the toddler table on the morning of Dec. 14 before the doors opened at the Southwest Emergency Services for its annual toy giveaway for needy families. (Staff photo by Sarah Pastrana / December 18, 2012)

Santa has his elves. So does Southwest Emergency Services. Those volunteering for the Arbutus nonprofit based on the campus of Arbutus United Methodist Church at Shelbourne Road and Maple Avenue were out in full force on Dec. 14 to help make the organization's annual toy giveaway a success for nearly 300 families.

Betty Okonski, the driving force behind the toy giveaway for some 30 years, has developed a well-oiled machine to help supply less fortunate families in the area with Christmas presents, trees and decorations and even some necessities that can range from a turkey to a pair of gloves.

She counts on the elves to accompany each shopper during the morning event.

They push the shopping cart around the hall at the church where tables groan from the weight of dolls, blocks, games and puzzles while the clients make their often difficult decisions on what will mean the most for Christmas.

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Elves come from around the corner and from 100 miles away.

Pam Alban filled her car with relatives and friends, including her husband, Steve, and son, Michael, and drove down from Hanover, Pa. "We make the trip down every year to what we call our family's Christmas," she said.

She's taken part in the annual giveaway every year since the event was small enough to fit in a classroom. This year, the project took over space on the ground level, the narthex, Lewis Hall and even a few back pews of the sanctuary of Arbutus United.

JoAnn Shelly, of Ocean Pines, drove to Arbutus with her friend Joan Rinaldi, also of Ocean Pines, Thursday night to help out. They spent the night at Okonski's house and arrived early to man the teen table on Friday.

"These people are amazing," she said as elves milled around the room with the shoppers. "Betty always says God's there when you need Him."

Elves arrived at Lewis Hall early Friday morning. They were prepared for a long day, dressing comfortably in sensible shoes and Christmas tops, though some opted for Ravens gear. Volunteers were required to wear a Santa or elf hat or reindeer antlers.

Some had spent hours the previous night hauling the gifts Okonski collected all year from the storage room, sorting them and filling up the tables.

Rebecca Dongarra, of Catonsville, described the caravan of shopping carts moving toys into the hall moving with efficient precision.

"Elves were lined up and down the halls," she said and laughed. "We literally were a choo-choo train."

An hour before the first shoppers arrived, volunteers were ordered to take a break, get a cup of coffee or a doughnut. "It's probably not going to happen again 'til 6 o'clock," Okonski warned of the respite.

Then a quick training session covered everything to keep the toy giveaway running smoothly. The paperwork, the layout of the room, the point system for new toys, limits on used toys and other important aspects of the event were explained again.

Cindy Adams, of Arbutus, was donning her elf hat for the first time. "I've always wanted to do this," she said. A substitute teacher, she decided she could forego teaching for one day to help out at the giveaway.

Tricia Mullins was an elf in training, too. "Miss Betty has always been great to me," said the Arbutus resident. After losing herjobin June, she needed help herself. So she wanted to volunteer at the giveaway.

Gratitude brought Mary Omohundro and her daughter, Shawntel Omohundro, to the event. "She gave me a start," said Omohundro, an Arbutus resident. "I'll never forget her."

Omohundro has been an elf for 17 years. "I like shopping with other people," she said with a laugh as she helped a client pick out a wreath for her door.

Jimmy Hockett, of Marriottsville, joined his wife, Debbie, a longtime elf, for the first time last year. A Maryland State Trooper, he takes part in several similar Christmas charities. "It's very rewarding," he said.