Share Your Blessings: Arbutus assistance programs make Christmas possible for those in need

Janet Howser, of Arbutus, sorting used toys at the Southwest Emergency Services center, in Arbutus last week.
Janet Howser, of Arbutus, sorting used toys at the Southwest Emergency Services center, in Arbutus last week. (Bill Ryan/For BSMG)

As others sleep off their Thanksgiving dinner, Betty Okonski, founder and director of Southwest Emergency Services, will be at Kohl’s department store, in the thick of the 3 a.m. Black Friday rush.

Okonski, 73, or “Miss Betty,” as she is known, plans to buy 50 discounted remote-control toy trucks.


The trucks will be offered at a toy giveaway drive at Arbutus United Methodist Church, where Southwest Emergency Services, or SWES, is located, on Dec. 8 for families in need.

Parents and grandparents can go to SWES to apply for an invitation to the drive, where they can choose from hundreds of toys, new and used. Families can also pick up Christmas trees, decorations, wrapping paper, Christmas cards, even baskets of supplies for Christmas dinner.


“It’s like a dream come true,” said Phyllis Meeks, who said she comes to SWES with her sister whenever she can get there on public transportation. Without the organization, she said, Christmas “wouldn’t be.

“I praise Jesus and Miss Betty for the human help of this world,” Meeks said.

Preparing for the toy drive ramps up in November, but is an all-year process, Janet Howser, a volunteer from Arbutus, said, saying toys “start coming in Dec. 26” and continue through the next year.

Howser, a retired elementary school teacher, sorts toys as they come in, moving through piles of trash bags up to her shoulders every week and putting them in neat, labeled boxes by age, gender and category. She tapes loose parts and dresses the dolls.

The center is accepting donations for the toy drive until Dec. 3.

SWES does not give out Thanksgiving supplies, though it does refer people to a Thanksgiving dinner hosted and served by Arbutus United Methodist Church. Still, the number of people in need increases during the holidays.

Volunteer Joan Birmingham said in October, SWES gave food assistance to 493 people, nearly 100 more than they gave to in September.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, food assistance dropped by 7 percent in Maryland in August 2017 as compared to August 2016. That decrease mirrors the falling unemployment rate as Maryland’s economy stabilizes after the Great Recession.

Still, Okonski said many of the people she serves work one or two jobs and still do not make enough to pay for basic needs, and in recent years she said she is seeing more people in need as the opioid drug epidemic strains families.

Other requests become more dire around the holidays too, Okonski said.

The center provides food and clothing for needy people, but it also helps them pay for rent, utility bills, prescriptions and gas. As the weather gets colder, Okonski said, preventing utility shutoffs and evictions becomes a more serious matter.


“It’s getting cold, people are struggling,” Okonski said, adding that while many people like to donate clothing or food, what the organization needs most is monetary donations to help with needs like rental assistance.

Okonski said the center can provide people with toys, clothes, food and whatever else they need — “but what good is it if you’re sitting out on the curb?”

In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, families lined up outside Okonski’s office to sign up for Christmas assistance, ticking boxes to indicate what kind of tree they wanted and whether they needed transportation from the toy drive.

Okonski, who said she founded SWES out of her dining room closet 35 years ago, greeted many clients by name, asking some if they went to their last doctor’s appointments and waving others goodbye with a “Love you.”

Okonski said she had known one woman, June Gonzalez Ventura, for 26 years — “And she’s worked hard all those years, she tries so hard,” Okonski said.

Gonzalez Ventura, who said she is raising all five of her grandchildren on her own, said the center “helps a lot,” especially around Christmas. “If it wasn’t for them, like, I don’t think we would make it,” she said.

“Miss Betty’s always been there for me,” Gonzalez Ventura said. “She’s like family."

Neighbors in need

Throughout the area, there are dozens of nonprofit groups committed to serving those in need. These groups can always use our help. Below is a sampling of some organizations seeking donations of either money or items, or both. In this season of giving and Thanksgiving, please share your blessings, by giving to those less fortunate.

The Arc Baltimore — 7215 York Road., Baltimore, MD 21212. Provides advocacy and high quality, life-changing supports to more than 6,000 adults and children with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families. Contactus@thearcbaltimore.org or 410-296-2272.

Wish List: diapers (all sizes); Pull-ups (25-125 pounds); Goodnights (S-XL); canvas grocery bags; grocery store gift cards; protein (peanut butter, tuna, chicken, chili, etc.); laundry/dish detergent; toiletries; gift cards for family/holiday activities. Or designate a donation to the Family Fund at www.thearcbaltimore.org/donate.

Believe In Tomorrow National Children's Foundation — provides hospital and retreat housing services for critically ill children and their families. The Believe In Tomorrow Children's House at Johns Hopkins offers families a sense of home where they can stay for days or weeks at a time while their child undergoes treatment or surgery for a life threatening illness. Believe In Tomorrow also offers families five beach and mountain retreat homes, which they can utilize year-round, free of charge, to renew their spirits and reconnect as a family. Believe In Tomorrow's unique programs bring comfort, hope and joy to critically ill children and their families. 410-744-1032. www.believeintomorrow.org.

Wish List: Keurig K-cups (coffee, tea, hot chocolate), granola bars, individual snack bags (chips, popcorn), individual cereal cups, Duraflame logs, paper plates, paper coffee cups and lids, plastic silverware, disposable food containers, paper towels, toilet paper, dishwasher detergent, Clorox wipes and furniture steam cleaner.

Casey Cares Foundation — provides uplifting and on-going programs for critically ill children and their families throughout Mid-Atlantic region. 443-568-0064. CaseyCares.org.

Wish List: $10 or $25 gift cards for Target, Walmart, Ledo Pizza, Pizza Hut, Red Lobster, Subway, Dunkin Donuts, Chick-fil-A, Panera. $10 or $25 gift cards for Redbox, AMC and Regal Theaters or Fandango. New, two-piece pajamas (adult and infant sizes are needed most).

Defenders of Animal Rights — is dedicated to eliminating cruelty to all animals by providing services which include rescues, the sheltering of unwanted animals and abuse victims, adoptions through an innovative pet center, spaying/neutering, humane education, youth work, grief counseling, and human health enhancements via pets. 410-527-1466. www.adopt-a-pet.org

Wish List: Feline pine litter, Pro Pan Dry Dog/Puppy food, dog and puppy canned food, Purina Adult Cat and Kitten Chow, cat and kitten canned food, dog and cat treats and toys, rawhides and chew toys, parakeet and parrot food and toys, wild bird feed, suet cakes, bales of straw and hay, fresh fruit and veggies, peanut butter, canned tuna, baby food: pureed meats, kitten nursing bottles/KMR, gift cards (Petsmart, Walmart, grocery stores, Amazon, Lowes), Linens (sheets, towels, blankets), laundry detergent, large trash bags, bleach, paper towels, sponges, scrubbers, dish soap, hand soap, scrub uniforms; stamps, white copy paper, pens/markers, scotch tape, blank CDs, correction tape, manila file folders.


Dream 4 It Foundation — raises funds to support educational scholarships for college freshmen. 443-472-3311. www.dream4it.net.


Wish List : Cash donations and services and products for annual silent auction event.

House of Ruth Maryland — provides comprehensive services to victims of intimate domestic violence and their families. 410-889-0840. www.hruth.org.

Wish List : New wash cloths, wire hair brushes, deodorant, diapers (sizes 4, 5 and 6), new undershirts (sizes 24 months to 3T), new boys undergarments, all sizes (including men’s for the older boys), new girls undergarments (size 2T-6X), new girls socks (toddler sizes), new socks and undergarments for women and children, new pillows, new twin-size blankets, comforters and sheet sets, new air mattresses, baby wipes, pampers (sizes 3, 4, 5 and 6, Pull-ups sizes 4T, 5T and 6T), crib sheets for small cribs and cots, crib sheets that fit mattresses sized 23 3/8 x 37 1/4 (not standard size), new infant and toddler sleepwear, infant and toddler toys, play mats, rattles, baby mirrors, stacking cups and boxes, Jack in the boxes, Lego duplo, Fisher-Price Learning toys, nesting blocks, new socks and undergarments for women and children, gift cards for grocery stores, gas stations, department stores (Walmart, Target, etc.) and non-perishable food (peanut butter and jelly, tuna, cereal, pasta, granola bars, juice boxes, etc.)

Kennedy Krieger Institute — is improving the lives of children and adolescents with disorders and injuries of the brain and spinal cord as well as developmental disabilities through patient care, special education, research and professional training. 443-923-7300. www.kennedykrieger.org.

Wish List: Cause and effect toys, light-up and sound toys, stacking/sorting toys, educational toys, Fischer-Price Little People toys, Playskool toys, arts and craft sets, DVD movies (G-PG13), Wii games (rated E), board games (ages 8 and older), sports items, gift cards for grocery stores/gas stations, and nonperishable food items. Please, no stuffed animals.

Maryland CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates for children), 402 W. Pennsylvania Ave., 3rd Floor, Towson, MD 21204 www.MarylandCASA.org / ed@marylandcasa.org . Provides more than 1,000 trained volunteer advocates for more than 1,500 children and youth who are under court protection due to abuse and neglect, ensuring their right to safe, permanent homes. Far more children and youth need our help.

Wish List: gift cards (Target, Walmart, etc.) for holiday gifts for children and youth, as well as to help older foster youth who are leaving foster care to set up their own households, office supplies to assist youth in their job search or to pursue college, office/training supplies to train additional volunteers, etc. Tax-deductible donations are also welcome at http://marylandcasa.org/get-involved/make-a-donation/ or above address, and we are always in need of volunteers to serve as advocates, assist in the office, help with fundraising and public awareness, etc. ( http://marylandcasa.org/get-involved/ ).

Maryland Food Bank – as the largest charitable food provider in the state, the Maryland Food Bank distributes an average of 115,000 meals every day to thousands of food pantries, soup kitchens and community-based organizations across Maryland.

Wish List: The Maryland Food Bank can stretch monetary donations furthest, turning every $1 donation into 3 meals. Make an immediate impact and donate to help hungry Maryland households today! Visit www.mdfoodbank.org for more information.

Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland — provides nutritious meals to homebound individuals since 1960. 410-558-0827. www.mealsonwheelsmd.org.

Wish List: Homebound Health Kits, adult diapers (Pull-ups: sizes M, L, & XL not tabbed), anti-bacterial liquid soap, adult wipes/towelettes, deodorant, body lotion, tissues, shampoo, comb/hairbrush, toothbrush/toothpaste, back-Up boxes, boost or ensure (plain, vanilla and chocolate), canned goods (corn, beans, stew, fruit, etc), canned chicken, tuna or salmon, crackers/cheese crackers, peanut butter/peanut butter crackers, cereal, mac 'n cheese jelly, single servings of fruit cups/applesauce, soup - vegetable/ chicken noodle, fruit juice (single serving size), ultra high temperature (UHT) milk, high protein items, dishwashing liquid, paper towels, laundry detergent, toilet paper, cleaning wipes, dish towels, flash lights, non-skid socks and magnet clips.

NAMI Metropolitan Baltimore — provides education, support, and advocacy to improve the lives of individuals and families impacted by mental illness in Baltimore County. All programs are free, confidential, and peer-led. Donations can be made online at www.namibaltimore.org or by mail to 6600 York Road, Suite 204, Baltimore, MD 21212.

Wish List: Monetary donations and gift cards (Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Target, grocery stores) are needed to create a mental health education library and to support volunteer training. Volunteers are needed to share their time and talents in a number of roles, including program facilitators, mentors, presenters, and HelpLine volunteers. Contact volunteer@namibaltimore.org.

Salvation Army — The Salvation Army operates three Boys and Girls Clubs in central Maryland, which provide children and youth with educational, spiritual and recreational programs.

Wish List: cash donations, volunteers, sporting equipment, video games, educational material and beauty supplies.

Santa Claus Anonymous — provides assistance in the form of gift certificates redeemable at local merchants to aid families in the purchase of toys, clothing, or books for holiday presents. 443-557-7000.

Wish List: Monetary donations by mail or online only. PO Box 28385, Baltimore, MD 21234 or www.santaclausanonymous.org.


United Churches Assistance Network — (UCAN) provides emergency financial assistance to families and individuals in the Northern Baltimore County area, to prevent evictions and utility turnoffs. Networking and referrals to other organizations also provided. Open Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. 410-628-2102.

Wish List: Money, gift cards to food stores, Target and Walmart.

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