“Does anybody know what they want from Santa Claus?” Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam asked the miraculously calm group of pre-school children sitting in front of him. “What do you want for Christmas?”

The tiniest of blonde-haired girls piped up with, “I want a purple hat with purple gloves.”

“That would be beautiful on you,” the governor said with a smile. He then asked the children if anyone knew what he wanted for Christmas. One little boy suggested a big robot that transformed. Everyone laughed when Northam agreed, “Yes, as long as it transforms into a new truck.” 

This lighthearted exchange with the children from Battle Annex Child Development Center set a joyous and festive tone for the Holiday Helper Open House that Northam and his wife Pamela attended Dec. 6 at the “toy store” along Battle Drive. 

Going strong in its 18th year, Holiday Helper supports military families who are facing special circumstances. What was once a yuletide-focused program has expanded to free school supplies and backpacks for military children over the summer and other morale-building endeavors. It shines brightest, though, every December when it opens its doors to command-nominated military members and allows them to “shop” for gifts free of charge to give to their children for Christmas. The selection of toys, books and other gifts is vast, thanks to a steady flow of generous donations from community groups, local businesses, government agencies and others.

The success of Holiday Helper is showcased at its annual open house. After an opening program in which CDC kids sing a Christmas carol or two and guest speakers share their thoughts on the significance of supporting military families, it’s time to shop.

Military members are paired with attending dignitaries – this year in addition to Northam and his wife, they included Colonial Heights Mayor Greg Kochuba and Brig. Gen. Douglas McBride, Quartermaster General. The formalities of junior and senior quickly melt away as the teams set about the business of selecting the right toys for sons and daughters, teen and tots. There’s even a gift-wrapping station where lighthearted banter typically breaks out about unrefined wrapping skills.

This was the governor’s second time helping Soldiers shop. As a former Army doctor, he and his wife invested eight years in the service and they view the open house as an opportunity to reconnect with the military.  

“We lived it when we were overseas during the holidays,” Northam stressed. “We all want to be home with our loved ones, but when we have a mission to defend the country we have to be away from home.

“There’s nothing better than reaching out to those around us and making sure they know they’re appreciated and are loved,” he continued. “Pam and I felt that when we were in the military, so thanks for all you do for our country. This event is just a blessing to see happen every year as we’re able to reach out and make sure that when all of our children wake up Christmas morning they have something to be excited about under the tree.”

The Northams and New York native, Pfc. Pedro Acosta, were honored to work together, and they got right to work shopping for the Soldier’s 6-year-old daughter Jazline. The numerous volunteers who set up the toy store’s donated toys, books, puzzles and other items had divided the goodies into age groups, genders and sizes to ease shopping, so the trio knew what section to dive into. 

Mrs. Northam only too happily peppered Acosta with questions about his daughter’s likes, wants and needs while pulling out gift after gift to get the Soldier’s take on them. The governor was just as thrilled to hold the bag for all approved selections, readily available to retrieve everything for the little girl. As he stood nearby with the big, blue bag, he mentioned that while in the Army he and his wife never participated in an event like this; then he praised her for often inviting people over for dinners who didn’t have any family nearby. 

When they moved to the stocking stuffer section of the store, Maj. Gen. Rodney D. Fogg, CASCOM and Fort Lee commanding general, and his wife Janie came into view with Pfc. Sebastian Walteros. The three were working together to wrap a big gift for his 2-month-old daughter Naomi.

When asked how it felt to be wrapping a gift with the general, Walteros emphatically said, “It’s intimidating.” Everyone laughed and the general replied, “No, no, it’s all good.”  

Walteros hastily interjected, “But I like it, he’s really nice.”

Fogg laughed again and added, “This makes my day. It’s the fun stuff of what we do.”

Janie Fogg literally wrapped up the conversation with a bow on the gift, concluding, “We make a good team, as this looks really good.”

The governor and Mrs. Northam ended their shopping trip with Acosta after choosing the last of the books for Jazline. They had to get moving to the next event on their busy schedule. 

“You’ll be able to read to her every night,” Mrs. Northam said to Acosta. “I know it’ll mean a lot to her to have such a great dad. Thank you for letting us help you. We have grown children, so this is a lot of fun for us to do this.

“The military is our larger family, and we love them,” she added. “We are always happy to come and help in any way we can. They gave to us, and it is our wonderful privilege to give back.”  

Acosta felt that they had given him a lot as they helped him shop. 

“They were a great help, and I appreciate everything they did for us,” he said. “It was a great opportunity, and we got more than enough for a great Christmas.”