FORT LEE, Va. – Governor Ralph Northam was among the guests of honor at the Holiday Helper Open House here Dec. 10.
Holiday Helper is a command-approved, Fort Lee-based non-profit organization with a mission to support “military members, wounded warriors, retirees, widows, survivors, veterans and their families in need …,” according to its website. The organization’s core function – established 20 years ago – is to provide for those struggling financially during the holiday season. Troops are allowed to shop free of charge from the vast selection of toys, books and stocking stuffers – all donated by caring community members, civic organizations and businesses.
Joining Northam at the open house was Maj. Gen. Mark T. Simerly, CASCOM and Fort Lee commanding general, and roughly 50 other distinguished military and civilian guests. The governor – a former Army doctor – beamed as he told those gathered how much he appreciated the moment.
“This is really my favorite event of the year – to come in here and see everybody getting together and making sure that not only our troops but also the children have a Christmas that is meaningful to them …,” said the commonwealth’s chief executive who will relinquish his gubernatorial duties next month. “Just to walk up each year and see bicycles and the shelves that are full of toys that will go to our children brings back the children in all of us, especially me.”
Northam has participated in the open house each year during his governorship. As is tradition, he was first to escort and assist several military members as they shopped and picked out toys for their kids. Other dignitaries followed suit, taking great interest in ensuring the right gifts were chosen and quickly wrapped and readied for Christmas morning. Roughly 20 command-nominated military members were present for shopping this year.
Holiday Helper’s main shopping event is actually scheduled for two days next week, said HHA board member Susan Garling. Troops will choose from an inventory valued at more than $50,000, she also noted.
Simerly, who spoke during the preliminaries, said Holiday Helper’s success speaks to the reverence, care and concern community members have for those serving the country.
“The people we get to take care of today are our Soldiers and families,” he said. “For those of us who wear the uniform, and for those of us who have worn the uniform, and those of us who support those who wear the uniform, there’s nothing more honorable or rewarding than the chance to give back to those who are serving and sacrificing for our nation. It’s a reminder … that giving is the spirit of the season and that we have folks who are in need.”
Aside from assisting less fortunate military members – whose needs arise from unexpected medical bills to caring for family members – Simerly said HHA pays it forward, passing on the idea of giving, especially to junior service member who may someday be in positions to help.
“We get the chance to influence by demonstrating to them that we care,” he said to the crowd.
Simerly went on to thank commanders, volunteers and community partners for their support.
This year the toy and gift selection included more than 50 bicycles and tricycles, and loads of stuffed animals, dolls, toy trucks, board games and other miscellaneous gifts lining the shelves of the toy warehouse adorned with holiday decorations.
All that the event offers is made possible through volunteers – from its board of directors to community members who make donations to military members who help with stocking warehouse shelves.
One military member who volunteered his time, Spc. Devin Woods, said while his young daughter – “who likes toys” – was the primary inspiration, he remembered his own childhood growing up in Norfolk.
“I just think about myself when I was a kid,” said the married Soldier. “I went without a lot so, if I can help ….”
Last year, the open house portion was scrubbed due to the pandemic. The shopping show went on, however, with virtual donations and drive-thru toy pickup opportunities.
Organized in 2001, Holiday Helper was hatched when Army Community Service and a group of installation Soldiers and civilians sought to help those struggling financially during the holiday season.
It grew over the years with the establishment of a non-profit and the acquisition of a warehouse among other efforts – all of which increased its ability to serve wider interests.
Holiday Helper has supported as many as 1,000 families per event over the course of its existence.
The organization, in addition to supporting families, also plans to provide 300 gift bags to advanced individual training Soldiers who will forego trips home during the holidays.
For more information about Holiday Helper, visit www.holidayhelperassociation.com.