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Arbutus volunteer effort makes Christmas possible for hundreds of families

Volunteers, known as elves for the day, wore reindeer antlers or red and white Santa hats as they escorted hundreds of parents and grandparents through a large room at Arbutus United Methodist Church last Friday.

The shoppers pushed grocery shopping carts, lent from the Giant Food store on Wilkens Avenue, as they chose from a plentiful selection of used and unused toys, boxes of food and clothing items.

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The well-oiled operation could only be compared to Santa's workshop.

In its 30th year, the event is by invitation only.Those who participate were identified by Southwest Emergency Services, area churches, schools and other organizations as needing financial assistance in the 21227 ZIP code, said Betty Okonski, 71, director of SWES.

Arbutus resident Mary Vogelsang, a volunteer for six years, led Tammy, also of Arbutus, through the room, as she considered Christmas lights, ornaments, dolls, trucks, games, books and remote-controlled cars.

Each shopper is given 25 points, similar to money, Vogelsang said. They choose toys and items that are assigned a point value, she said.

"I'm very grateful for all of this," Tammy said, who shopped for her two daughters and two grandsons. "Betty Okonski is a great woman."

Ask anyone in the room, and they gush about Okonski, founder of SWES and the annual Toy Giveaway. Those helped include Marcy Rather and Pam Alban, who have volunteered since the event began 30 years ago.

"I just wanted to help after Betty helped me," said Rather, an Arbutus resident, who said she was on public assistance raising four children, when Okonski's generosity got her back on her feet.

Alban travels roughly 45 miles from Hanover, Pa. with her husband and two adult sons each year to volunteer.

"It taught them what Christmas is all about," Alban said, who used to live in Lansdowne.

Okonski, now a Catonsville resident, said she got the idea to offer free toys to parents in need when her kids attended Lansdowne High School.

"They had a toy drive at the school, but I never knew anyone who got any of the toys," Okonski said.

She asked the school's principal if she could refer needy families from the 21227 ZIP code, which includes Arbutus, Halethorpe, Lansdowne, Relay, Riverview and Baltimore Highlands, to pick up toys and he agreed.

From there, the annual toy drive was born.

Okonski began the toy giveaway from her dining room closet. It's a family effort with her five children, nine grandchildren and significant others helping, she said.

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"That first year, I had one pickup truck of new toys and the rest were used," Okonski said, walking around the maze of stacked boxes, organized by volunteers at the SWES facility, located on the side of the church two days before the big event.

Over the years, the word has gotten out in the community and the annual production grows each year, Okonski said.

However, this year the church saw fewer donations, said Diane Connelly, Okonski's daughter, who oversees donations of hats, gloves and socks.

Connelly said donations have been declining.

"Our donations have not been what they used to be," Connelly said, pointing to empty shelves, where hats, gloves and socks should be. "This year is worse than last year."

Still, Okonski said she never worries about pulling it off.

"It always works out, because she doesn't stress about it — she prays on it," said Debbie Hockett, a Carroll County resident and a member of Arbutus United Methodist Church. "Who could ever replace her? Who could pull all this together?"

In addition to offering toys and Christmas items, participants can also receive hats, socks, gloves and underwear to keep their children warm by requesting the items using a form that they are required to fill out ahead of time, Connelly said.

Free Christmas trees, 160 turkeys and boxes of Christmas dinner food and baking ingredients were also given to those who requested them, Okonski said.

Once each shopper was finished, those who needed transportation were given a ride home by volunteers.

It's a community effort each year, with community businesses and members helping out, Okonski said.

Six dollar pizzas were ordered from Domino's Pizza, and doughnuts were purchased by Jackie Jones, owner of Corner Florist in Lansdowne, to keep volunteers energized throughout the day, Okonski said.

Boy Scout Troop 456, sponsored by St. Mark Roman Catholic Church in Catonsville, also offered manpower, by helping volunteers haul toys and other items from the SWES facility to the church, she said.

Planning next year's event began Saturday.

"Each year, it gets a little bit better — we work out the kinks," Okonski said.

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