Last Updated: Jan 8th, 2015 - 07:42:25

Holiday Helper Gets a Hand from Virginia's First Lady
By Sarah Steele Wilson, Newsroom Editor
Dec 13, 2012, 12:53

photo by Sarah Steele Wilson Virginia’s first lady, Maureen McDonnell, stopped by Fort Lee to visit the Holiday Helper site and help soldiers and their children pick out the perfect Christmas gifts.

What started as one woman collecting toys in her office has grown into a program that helps hundreds of military families provide Christmas gifts to over 1,000 children every year. Fort Lee’s Holiday Helper program has grown so much, it has attracted the attention of Virginia’s first lady.

Maureen McDonnell visited Holiday Helper Association’s on-post, “toy store,” which was a whir of activity during her Tuesday visit.

“Would you like to elf?” McDonnell was asked as a red velvet apron with a white feather trim was held out to her.

McDonnell slipped on the apron and helped service members comb the shelves to find the perfect gifts for their children, free of charge.

“She saw that there were a lot of children who were not having Christmas,” Suzie Bridgeman, 2nd Vice President for Holiday Helper said, describing an initiative former Army Community Services Director Karen McComas started over ten years ago. “So she just started collecting toys in her office and it grew from just one woman collecting toys in her office to make sure that the children had Christmas to what it is today.” 

McComas, who was present for the McDonnell’s visit on Tuesday, said that the idea took shape as she watched service members work hard every day, sometimes having to spend their holidays far away from their families in dangerous areas. 

“I saw the work that our soldiers do on a daily basis, and when I got here, they were deployed, we had 9-11, so I wanted something to give back,” she explained.

As the program grew, it moved out of McComas’s office into temporary staging areas set up around post. 

“Sometimes it was a dining facility, sometimes it was a barracks, but we needed a permanent facility because we grew so much,” she said.

Now the program is based in an old warehouse building that has been transformed into a winter wonderland, with canvas walls painted with evergreen trees and seasonal decorations.

As McDonnell toured the facility, she looked at piles of hand crocheted and knitted blankets, hand made bears and other stuffed animals and toys for boys and girls of all ages, all donated by the community to help brighten up the holiday season for the children of low paid service members.

The shoppers are selected by their commanders, based on need. Bridgeman said many of the shoppers are junior level enlisted members of the military, or people with many children.

Wayne Hall, President of the Holiday Helper Association and tour guide for the first lady’s visit, said that the program is important because it allows service members to select gifts for their children without worrying about how they will pay for them and because it brings senior officers, civilian employees of the department of defense, state and local leaders and members of the community together for a good cause.

“You just see the stress coming off their face,” Bridgeman said, describing what she sees in the service members who arrive at the store, who are sometimes surprised to discover where they have been sent.

“Sometimes they’re told just to show up,” Bridgeman said. “They have no idea what they’re showing up for...” 

Bridgeman said that the volunteers who help guide shoppers and wrap presents come from the Fort Lee community and the surrounding localities. 

“We actually had several show up who weren’t even on our signup list, but they look forward to doing it every year,” Bridgeman said, describing the enthusiastic response this year. “We try not to turn them down.” 

McDonnell also visited the volunteers, complimenting Lt. Col. William Schoen, commander of the Marine Corps detachment at Fort Lee on his gift wrapping skills as he took on an unusually shaped present.

McDonnell also came with a contribution of her own: 500 children’s books.

“The first ladies in different states are participating in Scholastic’s ‘Read Every Day, Lead a Better Life,’ so Scholastic’s donated 500 books through the first lady,”explained Sandy Howells who was on scene representing the publishing company. “She chose to donate them to Holiday Helper.” 

Last year, the program provided toys for 1,244 children from 521 families, Bridgeman said. On Tuesday, with the shopping not yet done, Hall said they were at just under 1,000 children for this year. 

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