Volunteers make Christmas special

Volunteers Peggy and Tom Thome join a child at Helping Hands as he opens a Christmas present early Saturday morning.

Every Christmas morning, Addie Ross arises long before dawn and heads over to the residential shelter Helping Hands to supervise a holiday breakfast preparation for the children who live at the facility. She walked into Helping Hands around 6 a.m., and it didn't matter that Ross had to be at the airport at 9:30 a.m. to catch a flight to New York to be with relatives. Actually, she had scheduled the flight around her volunteer effort on behalf of the children. All of them placed at Helping Hands had been removed from their homes because of abuse and neglect. In the dining room and living room areas, other volunteers assisted the children, ranging from toddlers to teenagers, in opening their Christmas gifts and putting them together as needed. Lots of kids got bicycles, most with training wheels, and they were soon trying them out down the hallways. In the kitchen, Ross was coordinating with other volunteers to make a breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausage, grits and cheese toast. "I wasn't about to miss this, and everybody has jumped in to help," she said. "Afterward, I can go and be with my other family." Gwen and Ambrose Schwallie couldn't stop smiling as they helped several kids open their presents. Gwen visited the facility a few years ago, painting rooms as a member of the Women of Woodside organization. The couple's own children weren't in town for Christmas, so they decided to visit Helping Hands to be with other children. "It tears your heart they aren't with their own families, but it's nice to be a surrogate for them," she said. "We're very blessed to have a facility like this in Aiken. Otherwise, where else would these children go?" Back in the kitchen, Bernice DeLoach was among the volunteers recruited by Ross to help prepare breakfast. When Ross had mentioned she doesn't cook grits, DeLoach brought along her husband Tyrone because "he's the grits man" and often prepares it for church functions. "I'm like a teenager myself this morning, seeing all these kids with their presents and getting on their bikes," Bernice said. "I remember getting my pink and silver bike when I was 12. It's just great to be here." Peggy Thome serves on Helping Hands' Board of Directors, which focuses primarily on funding and other business issues for the agency. "It's fun to come here, as it brings up another side, makes it more personal," Thome said. "It's a sad thing these children are here, but this is an organization that cares for them and nurtures them." Contact Rob Novit at rnovit@aikenstandard.com.