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Montrose Center Volunteers Prepare 100 Holiday Baskets

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Clients in special need will now have a real Christmas dinner.
Story and photos by Brandon Wolf

Francis Bueno still gets teary-eyed when she sees the smiles on clients’ faces when they are presented with a special holiday basket from the Montrose Center. She even gets teary-eyed just talking about those smiles.

Bueno has been doing this for the past 20 years, but never tires of the effort. She’s seen the project expand from 25 baskets to 100, in the two decades she has worked at the Center. The first years, the baskets were funded by the employees. But in recent times, community organizations have joined in. This year, Bunnies on the Bayou and the Krewe of Olympus have covered the costs.

On Sunday, December 11, 2016, members of the Center’s volunteer program met to put together the boxes. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of coordination, but when they finish, it’s an awesome sight to see.

Each basket contains two cans of corn, two cans of green beans, two boxes of cornbread mix, one box of stuffing mix, one can of cranberry sauce, one can of yams, one bag of potatoes, one bag of apples, one bag of oranges, and a bag of holiday candy. The basket is topped off with a teddy bear and a personally inscribed holiday card.

When a client picks up the basket, they also receive a 12-pound turkey. The number of teddy bears and candy bags is adjusted so that each child in a family receives one of their own.

The clients are chosen by the Center’s case managers, program managers, and therapists. Most of those receiving baskets are in case management. Other baskets are given to clients in the anti-violence, therapy, and seniors programs—and clients at Legacy’s heathcare satellite in the Center. “The baskets are given to those clients who are actively working their programs, but currently living on meager budgets,” Bueno says.

This year, Bunnies on the Bayou gave a $3,500 donation for the baskets. Bueno says she wants to be a good steward of that gift, and works for months to spend the money wisely. “I buy the candy after Halloween, when it’s 50 percent off. I look for bags that have candy that doesn’t have Halloween decorations on the wrappers.”

Bueno also keeps up with the prices of canned goods at major discount retailers. When she sees a special on brand-name green beans, she’s there to buy 200 cans. “I discovered that when people see brand-name food in the baskets, they are so happy. They are used to buying the cheapest brands on the shelves.”

The canned foods are stored at the Center as Bueno buys them. Then, right before she is ready to put the baskets together, she takes a volunteer crew to Farmers Market to get fresh apples, oranges, and potatoes. Early in the morning of the day when the baskets will be given out, Bueno heads to a local grocery store to pick up the turkeys that have the best sale prices.

This year, Kay Jewelers at Galleria and Memorial City provided 100+ teddy bears. The holiday baskets are actually boxes, donated and wrapped by volunteers from Ernst and Young, during a fall volunteer day.

When the day comes to pull it all together, volunteers line up the boxes on chairs in a large meeting room at the Center, and bring all the needed elements together, stacked on tables. Then comes the task of filling each box. When everything is complete, a quality control is conducted to be sure each box contains exactly what it is supposed to.

The boxes are distributed on two different days at the Center. The staff members who recommended their clients receive a box meet them on the second floor, but then take them to the first floor to present them with the boxes, allowing their clients privacy. For some clients who do not have transportation or are physically unable to make a trip to the Center, cars are loaded up and the boxes delivered to their homes.

Among the volunteers was Margo Faulkner, who works at a local SPCA pet adoption facility. “A friend invited me to come along,” she says. “I like to help people in need.”

Stephanie and Al Risher are brother and sister, and both volunteered. Al says, “I like to do something more productive than watch football.” Stephanie says that now that she is retired, she finally has time to volunteer, and loves to spread the joy of the holidays.

Jenna Pel, a program coordinator at a local Montessori school, says she decided to volunteer after the Pulse Nightclub shooting earlier this year. “I wanted to do something to honor them, so I’m volunteering in memory of them.”

Pel is no stranger to mass tragedy. She lived in Connecticut in 2001, and could see and smell the smoke from 9/11. “Pulse was our community’s 9/11,” she says. “This is so amazing, and I’m happy to have been a part of it. I especially enjoyed the diversity of the volunteers here today.”

As Bueno sits down for the first time during the afternoon, and looks out at the sea of boxes that are now complete, she is pleased. But in her mind, it’s still not enough. “Next year,” she says, “we want to give out more than 100 boxes.”

  • Volunteers sign in, ready to do whatever they can, to help make the holidays happier for those in need.
  • Canned goods are brought in from storage to be distributed into holiday baskets.
  • Bunnies on the Bayou were a major funding source for the 2016 baskets.
  • The Krewe of Olympus also provided funding.
  • Getting into the spirit of the season.
  • Volunteer coordinator Jay Mays welcomes those who have come to help out.
  • Francis Bueno explains who the holiday baskets are for, and relates some stories of how the baskets have brought smiles to many clients’ faces in past years.
  • It’s the 20th year that Bueno has been in charge of assembling and distributing the baskets.  In 1996, she helped get together 25 baskets.   This year it is 100 baskets.
  • Each basket will be filled with the same list of items.
  • Apples bought in bulk from Farmers’ Market are transferred to colorful bags.
  • First, the number of apples is counted out into a bag.
  • Then you spin the bag and secure it with a tie.
  • The apple crew works on its goal of 100 bags.
  • Then it’s on to oranges, which go into a different color bag.
  • Count, spin, tie. One hundred times.
  • The fruit crew hard at work.
  • Montrose Center Communications & Marketing Manager Arnea Williams catches the action with her camera.
  • 100 boxes donated and wrapped earlier in the season by volunteers from Ernst & Young have been stored in a third floor storage room, waiting to be filled.
  • So it’s time to bring them down to the work area on the first floor.
  • Volunteer Jenna Pel supervises the elevator transfer.
  • How do you get 100 boxes into one elevator?  With careful coordination by volunteers.
  • Time to send the first load of boxes down two floors.
  • Volunteers unload the elevator, and bring the boxes into the work area.
  • Each box gets a chair, and volunteers set off to pretty them up with tissue paper.
  • It’s a colorful sight as the boxes get ready for the food that will fill them.
  • Meanwhile, the candy crew is making bags of candy.   The candy is bought at 50% off after Halloween, and it takes a good eye to make sure the packaging is generic.
  • Each bag is filled with a specific list of assorted candies.
  • When clients pick up the boxes, the number of candy bags is adjusted so that there is a bag for each child in a household.
  • Volunteer Jenna Pel heads off with turkey stuffing mix.
  • Two cans of green beans go into each box.
  • Two boxes of corn muffin mix goes into each box.
  • One can of sweet potatoes for each box.
  • The boxes are slowly filling up.
  • Two cans of corn into each box.
  • As the boxes fill, more tissue paper is added to make them colorful.
  • Make sure the box doesn’t already have muffin mix.
  • The first floor of the Center is a beehive of activity.
  • Now come the fruit – one bag of oranges per box.
  • The boxes are filling up.   Volunteers make sure the heavier items on the bottom.
  • Volunteer Jenna Pel begins to distribute bags of apples.
  • Five pounds of potatoes go next.
  • Clients are especially happy when they see brand names – something they usually can’t afford.
  • Potatoes, apples and oranges are carefully arranged in the boxes.
  • The candy crew is ready to distribute their bags of sweets.
  • Does that box have candy yet?   If not, a bag is added.
  • The candy bags are festive and full of surprises.
  • This box looks like it has everything, but a quality check is done, to make sure nothing is forgotten.
  • Other volunteers are busy with hand-made greeting cards for the boxes.
  • No one is too young to help out.
  • The cheery message a client will see when they pick up their box.
  • Creativity is encouraged as the cards prepared.
  • A simple black and white sketch is turned into a colorful holiday scene.
  • A colorful gingerbread figure smiles out of a card.
  • A personalized message is included to the recipients of the boxes.
  • The holidays will be special for 100 needy recipients who would otherwise have no traditional Christmas dinner.
  • A junior artist decides to make a really special greeting.
  • The boxes filled, everyone joins in on the greeting card crew.
  • Teddy bears from Kay Jewelers are positioned in each box.  When clients pick up their box, a teddy bear will be added for each additional child in the family.
  • A final touch-up, making sure every box looks just right.
  • A completed box, ready for a client.  Recipients are chosen by the case managers and program managers, based on client need.
  • This teddy is waiting for someone to name him and give him a special home.
  • A stack of completed greeting cards is distributed amongst the boxes.
  • And there is the final touch for a box that is bound to bring lots of smiles.
  • Each of the 100 boxes are ready for pick-up – or delivery – and a 12 pound turkey will also be included.    Volunteers have helped make the holidays very special for 100 clients.

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Brandon Wolf

Brandon Wolf is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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