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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.”