By Mary K. Tilghman
11:00 AM EST, 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.
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.
Clients were invited to either the morning or afternoon session. To be ensure later arrivals had a good selection from which to choose, half of the toys, both new and used, were set aside for the afternoon shopping, said Lorraine Shaw, of Halethorpe.
"In the afternoon everything is wiped out and we have to bring it all out and start again," Shaw explained.
Shoppers had several stops to make before they reached the toy give-away. In a waiting area downstairs, they filled out a form for hats, gloves and underwear. They could also pick up Christmas cards.
Once upstairs, they stopped in the narthex for a bag filled with hats, gloves and underwear they had requested.
A lucky few also received Christmas stockings hand stitched by members of the Faithful Circle Quilters of Columbia. Elf Meier, a member of the group, brought them. Once they checked out, some also picked up Christmasfoodbaskets or fresh Christmas trees.
Okonski had ordered 40 trees and Hubbard Funeral Home delivered 20 more that had remained after the Wilkens Avenue funeralhomehosted its first Trees for Troops giveaway the previous weekend.
Clients were warned in their invitation that they may have to wait up to two hours. That's because no one was rushed. The elves were directed to guide their shoppers once around the entire hall so they could consider all the options. Then slowly, the shopping carts were filled. Once they reach the check-out table, the elf offers a wish for a Merry Christmas and heads back to the check-in table with the cart for the next shopping expedition.
It's a long day, admitted Alban. "Sometimes the spirit gets tested," she said. "You've just got to remember why you're here."
Nancy Meier, of Catonsville, said she's never forgotten one shopper who at first was really down as they browsed the tables. "She cheered up and it made me feel good," Meier said. "It's a hard, hard time, so to be able to give people Christmas" is wonderful.
Marva Heier, of Arbutus, has served as an elf for nine years. "I'll keep coming back. It's for Christmas and the children and what Christmas means, the Lord's love and his gift to us," she said.