Optimist Club provides Christmas to children

December 16, 2004|EMILY TOADVINE

When Kaleena Baker brings her cart to the Kmart checkout line Saturday, something with Elmo definitely will be in it - whether it's clothes or a toy.

Her 17-month-old son Bradley Walters loves the furry, red Sesame Street character. Likely, she will select some clothing with Elmo on it because her son needs something to wear.

"Every shirt he's got is too short. He likes Elmo," says the 22-year-old single mother.

Her child's Christmas goodies will be compliments of the Danville Optimist Club. Last year, the 22-member club provided Christmas for Baker's 6-year-old daughter, Brianna Berry. Brianna mainly wanted clothes, but she also received a play horse with items for styling its mane.

"They said (the children) had to get one toy," Baker says.

Buying a toy is the one rule the Optimists give when they provide the shopping money for area families.

Baker says the shopping spree made the difference in the type of Christmas her children received.


"It means a lot. The baby's daddy wouldn't let me work. I'm trying to get back on at Charleston Health Care."

Buying for 45 children

Curtiss Holmes, a club member for 28 years, says the club will buy for 45 children this year.

"We have had as many as 67," he says.

The club's motto of "a friend of youth" is what enticed Holmes to join, especially after he learned of the ways the club works to help underprivileged children.

"If an adult needs help, he can go several places and find help, but a child doesn't have that option," Holmes says.

The club cooks at the Boyle County Fair, Historic Constitution Square Festival and the Perryville Battlefield Re-enactment to make money for its Christmas project. It used to sell Christmas trees, but the project ended when the club couldn't get fresh trees delivered. Club members have to cook a lot of burgers and ribeye sandwiches to earn the $4,000 it needs to provide its Christmas outing.

The process of selecting families to help at Christmas begins with club members bringing in names of families who need financial help. Sometimes, they ask for names from the Salvation Army, the Danville Fire Department and the Family Resource Center, but they usually don't have to look far.

"It's not problem to find needy kids in the community," Holmes says. He found that out the times he served as a Little League coach."I know there's a lot of underprivileged kids from working in Little League and church," he says.

Once the families are selected, a home visit is made to make sure a family is not receiving help from another agency.

The night before the shopping trip, a Brownie troop will come to the clubhouse and stuff stockings for the children. They put fruit, candy and nuts in the stockings and are rewarded with pizza and the opportunity to earn a service badge.

On the Saturday of the shopping trip, the Optimists meet the parents at Kmart about 9 a.m. and turn them loose.

"We let the parents do the shopping. We feel like they know more what they need than we do," Holmes says, noting that each cart is checked to make sure it contains only items for the children and at least one toy.

"They can buy all toys if they want to," he says, noting that Kmart has been supportive of the club over the years and even provides the film for photographing the children with Santa.

Providing $50 for young children, $75 for older children

The club provides $50 for each child 6 and under and $75 for the older children.

"We don't go over age 15 because we feel like they can go out and get a paper route," says Holmes, who retired from BellSouth and now serves as a district circulation manager at The Advocate-Messenger.

After the shopping trip, the families and club members will go to Western Sizzlin' for a meal and to have pictures made with Santa.

Holmes says every year is special, and he knows the club makes a difference. One day, he was in Salvisa and stopped in a store to place newspapers. The woman working there asked if he recognized her. She was a mother of one of the families the club helped and told him that receiving the club's generosity had been a turning point.

"She said, 'You don't remember me. I've got four kids and I had some problems with drugs. I've gotten out of that now and I have this job.'"

The Christmas project also has been a learning tool with Holmes' son and daughter. They attended one of the dinners and when his daughter saw the Christmas presents the children received she said, "I wish I was underprivileged."

The next year, Holmes gave her an opportunity to rethink that wish. "I let her go to some of the home visits. I said, 'Do you want to be underprivileged?' and she said, 'No way.'"

Being a member of a club that works hard and plays hard is rewarding to Holmes.

"It's worth every penny of it, even starting with the little Brownies eating their pizza."

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