Betty Okonski was among those who spent the early hours of Black Friday shopping for deals. At 1:30 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving, she was at Kohl's department store in Ellicott City, where she purchased $3,000 worth of toys for $400.

Okonski, the director of Southwest Emergency Services in Arbutus, has put together the nonprofit's annual toy giveaway for 34 years.


She spends months searching for deals and helping local companies and community groups organize toy drives for the charity.

The toys stay at the nonprofit's Arbutus headquarters until the day of the annual giveaway, the culmination of her efforts and hundreds of hours of work from local volunteers.

Those who get toys also come regularly throughout the year for assistance or are referred from local community groups, such as schools, churches or the health department, Okonski said.

As holidays arrive, share your blessings to help the needy

The holiday season is upon us.

While nonprofits in the community serve those in need year-round, demand for donations of time, money and goods quicken

During the year, Southwest Emergency Services assists the needy with food, utility bill payments and other support.

Those she doesn't know fill out an application to prove they live in the area. At 6 p.m., after those in the 21227 ZIP code are served, those from out of town can come, she said.

"If they're lying to me, that's between them and God," she said. "I can't let that bother me. If I did, I'd [have] quit a long time ago."

The goal of her work, she said, is to make sure every child in need in the Arbutus community will get a toy on Christmas Day.

In years past, more than 600 children in need were able to get toys, she said. This year, more than 700 children will receive toys as a result of the drive, which had a pickup day on Dec. 9.

"It's a very moving experience," she said.

Debra Urban didn't think she'd be able to provide gifts for her nieces and nephew who live with her for part of the year. The 37-year-old from Lansdowne is a self-employed tax accountant who said this time of year is rough in her seasonal line of work.

In past years, she had volunteered at the Southwest Emergency Services toy giveaway. This year, she was worried she wouldn't have gifts for the children and said she thought she should be in a better financial situation.

Senior citizen 'gems of our generation' inducted into Hall of Fame

49 volunteers — including 14 from Baltimore County — last month were inducted into the Maryland Senior Citizens Hall of Fame, a nearly 30-year-old program that salutes the contributions of senior citizens.

"I wanted to make sure I had something there," she said.

Teamed up with a volunteer who helps navigate shoppers through the Southwest Emergency Services building, Urban made her way through a labyrinth of toys, books, clothes, Christmas trees and food and selected items for gifts. Gift wrapping was done on the premises. All for free.

"Even when you're down on your luck, there's always someone there who can help you," Urban said. "Whether you realize it or not, once you let your pride go, if you're willing to accept the help, you'll meet some of the nicest people you've ever known."


Dressed in a Joe Flacco Baltimore Ravens jersey and an elf hat with lights, Okonski greeted those who came to the giveaway.

"It's one-stop shopping for everything you need for Christmas," she said.

Seasonal programs abound during the holidays and demand has been constant over the years.

The poverty rate in Baltimore County has hovered in the 9 percent range since 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Santa Claus Anonymous, a Baltimore-based nonprofit, has focused on raising money for holiday gifts since 1934, distributing more than 20,000 gift certificates to children in Baltimore City and seven neighboring counties, including Baltimore County. This year, it had a $300,000 fundraising goal, according to its website.

The nonprofit works with the county's Department of Social Services to distribute the gift certificates, according to a county spokeswoman. A representative from Santa Claus Anonymous could not be reached for comment.

With demand steady, programs for the needy remain a vital safety net

As winter approaches, programs and services for those in need are preparing for a seasonal rise in the demand for everything from foodstuffs to clothing.

The Baltimore County Public Library held its third annual Connecting the Community Toy Drive, during which new toys were accepted at each of the library's 19 branches and donated to community-based nonprofits in the county. This year, 1,096 toys were collected, according to a spokeswoman. Last year, 976 toys were collected.

In Catonsville, the Banneker Community Center and Baltimore County Recreation and Parks team up to host a "Home for the Holidays Christmas Party" at the center. Bonita McMorris, a recreational assistant for Baltimore County in the Catonsville area came up with the idea 15 years ago and has been putting it together ever since.

The event provides a holiday meal for low income families and senior citizens who are in need, along with toys for children up to age 15.

McMorris said the annual celebration is a time to bring cohesiveness to the community.

"We want to give a good time to everyone," she said. "It's a time to come together once a year with no fussing or no fighting. We just have good spirits."

After two or three years, a registration process was enacted to ensure those benefiting were from Catonsville, she said. She said she knows many who register because they've come to get assistance over the years. Some she knows are in need because of recent tragic events, such as a fire destroying a home. For others, she has them come in and provide a pay stub to prove the need.

"Somebody that's making $60,000 or $70,000 a year don't need to be at the community party getting toys," she said. "Some people come up to me and say, 'My children don't have Christmas, thank you.'"

In recent years, numbers have been consistent — capped at about 250 children — McMorris said.

A letter was sent out in the weeks leading up to last Friday's event saying it was in jeopardy due to a lack of funding.

Days before the event, McMorris said about $1,200 has been raised and another $2,000 has been pledged for putting together the event, which typically costs between $5,500 and $6,500 to run. McMorris said she will find a way to cover the difference.

Volunteers and recipients are warmed by the programs.

Volunteers at local churches provide full meals to fill a need

This Thursday, a half-dozen volunteers will file into the kitchen of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Apostles on Leeds Avenue with a mission: to cook 130 meals in less than 120 minutes. The group, led by congregation member Al Severn, has been feeding the men at the Westside Emergency Men's Shelter on the Spring Grove Hospital campus on a monthly basis for almost nine years.

Stacey Hopkins, a 38-year-old from Halethorpe, had been unemployed for a while before securing a seasonal job with Amazon as a sorter. The job started in November and ends Jan. 1, she said.

She came to the toy giveaway at Southwest Emergency Services to get gifts for her children, ages 19, 13, 6 and 1, along with an artificial Christmas tree. She also got some board games, including Monopoly Junior and Pictionary, to bring some new energy to the weekly family game night.

Her three youngest children were excited to see the tree after she arrived home with it. They put it together and decorated it with family ornaments from years' past.

The toy giveaway put her in a festive mood. Last year, her father passed away around Thanksgiving, putting a damper on the holidays at the time, she said.

"It helped me get into the Christmas spirit," she said.