Toy giveaway in Arbutus a gift of Christmas love

No, Santa's workshop didn't relocate to Arbutus.

It just might have looked that way when Southwest Emergency Services held its annual Toy Giveaway at Arbutus United Methodist Church on Dec. 9.

New board games, sporting equipment, dolls, purses and various types of clothing along with other gently used items were so plentiful that they practically spilled off the tables.

Wearing reindeer antlers and earrings that blinked like Christmas light bulbs, SWES director Betty Okonski orchestrated the event, which served 297 families in the 21227 ZIP code.

Even though the invitation-only event helped nearly 300 families, Okonski said she expected more to come.

"It went good, but we had 100 no shows, which we can't understand," Okonski said.

The day started off slowly with only just over 100 families coming to the giveaway by 12:15 p.m.

Upon hearing the news, the volunteers, many of whom had been at the church since 7 a.m., braced themselves for a busy afternoon.

As the volunteers grabbed a quick lunch break, new shoppers started lining up outside the church.

By 1:15 p.m. nearly two dozen people patiently waited their turn to shop as the elves prepared to make the holidays a happy time.

Even though the slow start proved too much to overcome, Okonski said she still considered the event a success.

Okonski relied on her shrewd shopping skills to provide most of the gifts for children from toddlers to teens.

"I'm a good shopper, so you can't put a value on how much money I spent," Okonski said. "It's how much I got for the money I spent."

Okonski estimated that she could buy $1,000 worth of toys for only $300 at a Kohl's Department Store.

In addition to the fruits of Okonski's shopping prowess, she said she received donations, including toys from the 18 Hole Ladies Group of Rolling Road Golf Club.

Assisting Okonski at the giveaway, 54 volunteers, which she called elves, escorted "shoppers" through the inventory and restocked toys and clothing.

Nancy Meier has volunteered at SWES for five years and at the Toy Giveaway for three.

The Catonsville resident recalled one year when she met a woman at the event who looked depressed.

Meier said by the time the woman finished shopping she had a smile on her face and gave Meier a hug.

"It's just wonderful to see that you're giving a little more Christmas to people," Meier said.

Each shopper, Okonski said, received 25 points for every child currently in their care.

The points, in turn, were redeemed for brand new toys.

Dolls cost between 12 and 25 points, toy cars ranged between 15 and 20, books were as cheap as one point and a skateboard was 25.

To avoid running out of items, the volunteers divided the stash in two, half for the morning and half for the afternoon.

When asked what the hot items were, Ron Woynovitz, a 15-year volunteer, said, "Remote control cars. Every year, without a doubt."

Okonski noted that she only gets the ones that run on rechargeable batteries to reduce the cost for her shoppers.

Used items were available only to supplement new toys, Okonski noted.

"We had a lot of people where we were it," Okonski said. "They took a lot longer to shop because what they were getting from us was what (the only things) they were going to get."

Sandy, a shopper who preferred to be identified only by her first name, was waiting in line to redeem her points for the grocery-cart-full of items for her four children.

The Lansdowne resident said she has shopped at the giveaway before and that her haul, which featured several dolls, would be a hit with her children.

In addition to the wreaths, wrapping paper, ornaments, lights and plastic trees offered, Del. James Malone, who represents District 12A, which includes Arbutus, provided a donation of 40 live Christmas trees, Okonski said.

Okonski called the event a place for one-stop shopping, considering it even offered bags of food and turkeys so people could have a traditional holiday dinner.

The event not only brightened the holiday season of the shoppers, but also the volunteers who made the event possible.

Some, like Woynovitz, worked from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Dec. 8 to set up the event and spent the entire next day making sure the shoppers' needs were met.

"I'm actually pretty tired right now," the Arbutus resident said just before 1 p.m.

When asked if the event was worth the effort, he responded, "I consider myself fortunate. The people who are here are not as fortunate. Oh yeah. It's definitely worth it."

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