Holiday Helper accomplishes troop support mission

Lydia Escobedo, spouse of Command Sgt. Maj. Jorge Escobedo, CASCOM CSM, helps a Soldier fill a large plastic bag with toys for his children during the Holiday Helper shopping days Dec. 15-16. The scene at the toy store on Battle Drive was much different than years past due to the threat of COVID-19. Safeguards included a limit of only six service members shopping at a time.

FORT LEE, Va. – The Holiday Helper team demonstrated its determination to support military families in December by successfully carrying out its mission with additional safeguards to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“This year at the toy store was like no others in the 19-year history of the program,” observed Carlton Branch, 1st vice-president of the non-profit group. “Due to the pandemic, the team had to establish an entirely new method of executing the mission of distributing toys to nominated service members on and around Fort Lee.”

Holiday Helper provides gifts for more than 1,200 children annually. Shopping days in past years would be aptly described as “organized chaos,” but that all changed with pandemic-protective protocols such as no more than six service members in the toy store at any given time.

“Military members checked in, selected three gifts and a stuffed animal for each child, and they were then handed a pre-sorted bag with storybooks, hats, gloves, coloring books, puzzles, craft/art sets and Play Dough. They also received a large bag of stocking stuffers for each child,” described one of the program’s volunteers. “Once outside, they were assisted by Better Opportunity for Single Soldiers who provided each individual with a box of food from FeedMore and a live holiday tree if requested.”

Branch said the process this year “lost some of the warmth and charm” of previous seasons, but military members were no less grateful for the opportunity and humbled by the outpouring of community support. 

The pandemic protection protocols also limited the open participation of regular community volunteers this year. To fill that void, installation leaders, senior spouses, the Audie Murphy Club, Warrant Officers Association and the Fort Lee Sergeants Major Association Sustainment Chapter stepped up to provide the needed helping hands.

“Everything fell into place and the two-day shopping event went off like clockwork,” Branch proudly boasted.

A volunteer this year and former recipient of the program in the past, 2nd Lt. Paul Rouselle said, “The Holiday Helper program was there for me when my family needed the assistance, and for that, I am so thankful. I came back to volunteer this year in order to give back to the program and to my fellow comrades who now need the assistance.  It’s awesome to see the support we have from the community.”

The positive outcome of this program is noteworthy in a year that has left many feeling stressed, hopeless and afraid – or as Wayne Hall, Holiday Helper president, put it: “The good that has come out of all the change from this year is helping us see things from a different perspective.

“I’m so proud of the Holiday Helper team who gathered feedback from volunteers and service members to analyze and establish the way ahead,” he said. “Sure, we had to conduct business a bit differently to ensure everyone was safe, but that didn’t stand in the way whatsoever of our No. 1 priority, which is supporting our military forces.”

In addition to the previously named individuals and organizations that provided volunteer support, the Holiday Helper program wishes to thank its generous community supporters who donate gifts year-after-year. Team Lee members are invited to browse the many photos available at www.facebook.com/HolidayHelperAssociation to experience the warmth and generosity of those who give in a time when caring and contributing are needed most.