A Night of Giving: Friends, family and Santa at the Elks

The night started with a feast. A feast with friends and family — and friends like family and family-like friends. A feast not even the Grinch could spoil — in fact, he added some zest to the occasion.

More than 30 families gathered Tuesday night at the Westminster Elks Lodge for a Night of Giving, a special holiday event for families with children with chronic diseases and special needs. After the meal came the Grinch, Christmas songs and a visit from the jolly old elf himself, along with special gifts for those families in need.


It was the second year the Elks partnered with nonprofit foundation Live Hope Laugh, according to Elks member Greg Ackerman. Live Hope Laugh works with donors who adopt many of these families, buying the gifts on their wish lists to be distributed on the Night of Giving.

“It’s a really nice way to start your holiday season with the true meaning, the whole Christmas spirit,” he said. “These people really appreciate it.”

Appreciation is almost an understatement. Debee Taylor, of New Windsor, becomes emotional when talking about how much Live Hope Laugh has helped her and her son, Kyle, 20, who is quadriplegic with cerebral palsy.

“It’s truly a blessing because I am a single parent, so I struggle,” Taylor said. “I truly struggle during the holiday to give for my children.”

Taylor and her son have been with Live Hope Laugh since it launched in 2010, founded by Alexis Ross, a Westminster High School student at the time who had been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes just two years before at the age of 11.

With the help of her mother Caroline, Alexis started fundraising to help families with children with chronic illnesses around the holidays and with school supplies during the school year.

“At first we would go to the family’s houses and Santa would come with us and drop off the gifts,” Alexis said. “That was a lot of fun.”

A lot easier when there were only three families in need, Caroline noted, and a little more time-consuming as the foundation grew.

“We spent all month delivering, I mean, because the kids don’t want Santa to leave and Santa didn’t want to leave; he would sit there for an hour sometimes,” she said. “It got to be too much. We needed to have a night of giving where we provide dinner and Santa comes.”

Caroline’s friend Gail Flater came on to help as Alexis, now 21, began working full time and later went off to college and the Night of Giving was held at the American Legion in Westminster until the Elks offered to take over hosting.

“Before the Elks took over we were doing all the baking ourselves,” Flater said. “All the cooking, all the baking. It was a lot of work.”

With the Elks providing support, it allows all three women to focus more on what they want to be focused on — the holiday event and the people they are helping.

“Christmas is a magic time of year and it’s a time I think the three of us like to give,” Caroline said. “We work the hardest all year-round for this night.”

Those people in the Elks dining hall, Flater noted, “are family. That’s all our family.”


That’s part of why Hunter Green, 16, of Westminster, who lives with high-functioning autism, loves coming to the Night of Giving.

“This is actually the third or fourth time and every time I always make a new friend and see all the old ones,” he said.

That social aspect is part of what makes the event and Live Hope Laugh so special, said Hunter’s mother, Lisa Green.

“They really want to get to know the kids,” she said. “Every organization has their focal point, and for them it is to let the kids have fun.”

Taylor noted that she likes Live Hope Laugh events because they give her children a chance to meet other people like themselves and to simply be themselves, without having to explain to anyone. It’s nice for the parents, too.

“We’ve become part of a family here,” she said. “It’s easy to talk to other parents with special needs children because they understand what I’m going through with my child.”

“If you don’t know someone, you do by the end of the night,” she added.

Live Hope Laugh does organize other monthly outings, like going to the movies or bowling. But Hunter said he likes the Night of Giving the most because it “brings them all together in one.”

Green said it’s hugely valuable for giving parents a break, and helping make the holidays special for the children. Many of the families may need financial help, and even when funds are not strapped, she said, anything extra can be tough to organize.

“You want to do so much more for your kids and often there’s quite a few families that can’t because they are dealing with so many other medical issues,” she said.

Around 7:30 p.m., the children all gathered in the corner of the lodge near the tree to sing, as loudly as they could. And as they did, the doors swung open and Santa, decked in red and carrying a massive bag of gifts to match, strolled out to great them.

“It’s just really nice to be here,” Taylor said. “If it wasn’t for Gail and Caroline volunteering … I wouldn’t be here and neither would my family.”

Taylor teared up a little.

“We’re a family. We’re one big family now,” she said. “And I love ’em.”