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With just a short time left until Christmas, Toys for Tots programs across the country are collecting donations and preparing to distribute gifts to thousands of families. Running entirely on volunteer support, the local organizations work tirelessly each year to bring the spirit of the holidays to families in need each year. We chatted with Krista Brezina, coordinator of the Toys for Tots campaign in Calvert County, for this week’s Friday Focus.

Q: Tell us about your organization (who you serve, what you do, etc.)

A: Toys for Tots of Calvert County serves local families in need of assistance in supplementing their childrens’ gifts at Christmas. Donations of new, unwrapped toys are collected at over 80 locations across Calvert County, including schools, businesses, fire departments and offices between November 1 and Dec 13. The toys are then collected, sorted, counted and distributed to families who have registered online to participate in the program.

Q: What is your favorite “moment” (example of how your organization helped)?

A: My favorite moments come every year when I see the smile on parents’ faces as they pick out toys they know their children will love playing with.

Q: What is your biggest challenge?

A: The biggest challenge of running Toys for Tots is the actual timing of the campaign, which occurs during a very busy time for most people. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, everyone’s schedule fills up with work, school, family and social commitments and it’s hard to find volunteers who have time to help us.

Q: How can people get involved this holiday season?

A: Toys for Tots of Calvert County will provide toys, books and stocking stuffers to approximately 1,000 Calvert County children in 2013. Although this year’s campaign is winding down, we are already making plans for 2014. We anticipate next year’s campaign to be even bigger as we seek new referral sources, such as the Calvert County Public School system. As Toys for Tots of Calvert County grows, we will have even more opportunities for community members to help collect, sort, count and distribute toys as well as assist us with special events. For more information about Toys for Tots of Calvert County, please visit our website, www.CalvertToysforTots.com as well as our Facebook page.

We’d like to say a special word of thanks to all those who donated to our annual food and toy drive. Your generosity will truly help brighten the holiday season for so many people!

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Christmas in April St. Mary’s County, Inc rehabilitates the houses of low-income homeowners, particularly the elderly and disabled, so that they may live in warmth, safety, and independence. We caught up with Howard Thompson, the President of Christmas in April St. Mary’s County. Inc for this week’s Friday Focus, where he shared his organization’s story.

Q: Tell us about your organization (who you serve, what you do, etc.)
A: Christmas in April St. Mary's County, Inc. was started in the summer of 1990. This program focuses on a one-day “blitz” of home repairs on the last Saturday in April. However, we are a year-round program. Distribution throughout the county of free Applications for Assistance occurs during half of the year. Communicating our needs to welcome help from skilled trade’s people and community leaders to serve as area coordinators and house captains is on-going. Many of the home repairs focus on the goal of restoring the home to be safe, dry and warm.

I have had the privilege to be involved with Christmas in April serving in many capacities throughout the years. Having the opportunity to help people in our community in such an impactful way each year is a rewarding experience. In the past 23 years, Christmas in April St. Mary's County Inc. volunteers have repaired over 652 homes; 14 community nonprofit facilities have received help with repairs; 37,100 people have shared their time and talents; and have made free home repairs worth more than $5.6 million to improve the living conditions of the low-income, elderly, and disabled homeowners in St. Mary's County.

Q: What is your favorite “moment” (example of how your organization helped)?
A: One of my most memorable experiences was during my time as a house captain while repairing a lady’s porch. She was elderly and was unable to get outside due to the unsafe condition of her porch. At the time, her son was active duty military serving in the Iraq War, but promised upon his return he would perform the necessary repairs which would allow her to be able go outside again. Her son never returned because he was killed serving in the war. On Christmas in April day, after the repairs were complete, she grabbed her walker and humbly went out to the volunteers to thank them personally and tell them how happy her son would be that someone was looking out for his mom.”

There are so many needy people in our community. On another occasion, during a house inspection to assess the necessary repairs, I watched an animal enter through a large hole in the wall in the kitchen. This animal walked over the kitchen table and grabbed the food right off the table and proceeded to carry the food back to hole leading outside. This was obviously not the first visit from the animal. The home owner was so upset that she could hardly afford food and yet the animals were coming in and stealing her food.

Q: What is your biggest challenge?
A: These are just two examples of families that we have been able to help, however the stories are more common than we would like to believe in Southern Maryland. There are many more people we have not yet had the opportunity to help. The work we do is made possible only through the donations received and the volunteer hours given throughout the year. It seems as though, like many organizations, that the biggest challenge is to secure donations.

Q: How can people get involved this holiday season? Are there any upcoming events?
A: The holiday season is a great time of the year for giving. There is still an opportunity to make that tax deductable end of the year contribution and support the Christmas in April at the same time. You will know that your money is going to help someone in your community.

Christmas in April St. Mary's County, Inc. is having their Second Annual Lottery Raffle. The raffle is for the month of May. Ticket holders have a chance to win each day on one ticket. The winning number is the MD lottery evening pick three number drawn that night. Each day except the 15th is worth $100. The 15th of May is worth $2,500. We are only selling 1,000 tickets for this raffle. The tickets are $20 to benefit Christmas in April St. Mary's County, Inc.

If you would like more information about Christmas in April and how you can make a contribution or volunteer, visit our website at christmasinaprilsmc.org or you can call 301-884-2905.

Since the early 1990s, A Community That Shares (ACTS) has brought relief to those in need by providing free home convalescent equipment to residents of St. Mary’s County. Lending out much-needed items like wheel chairs, walkers and hospital beds for as long as each person requires, the all-volunteer organization has positively impacted the lives of thousands of elderly and ailing community members. We spoke to Chip Burton, a volunteer with the organization, for this week’s Friday Focus.

Q: Tell us about your organization (who you serve, what you do, etc.)

A: A Community That Shares (ACTS) was started in St. Mary’s County in 1994 by several members of the Seventh District Optimist Club. While not affiliated with the Optimist, the ACTS warehouse and headquarters are located on the Optimist Club property in Avenue, MD. ACTS is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides its services to the citizens of St Mary’s County. Its mission is to collect medical home convalescent care equipment, either through donations or through purchases using donated funds. When necessary, the equipment is restored or repaired and made ready for use by ACTS clients. The equipment is loaned, free of charge, for as long as it is needed.  At any given moment, ACTS has 3,000 pieces of equipment in the community on loan.  Over the years, ACTS has grown and just finished an addition to our warehouse that doubled the space. ACTS is staffed by volunteers and is open by appointment 5 days a week (Monday through Friday). Additionally, the warehouse is manned and open to clients on a walk-in basis from 12:00 p.m. until 5:00 p.m. on Saturdays.

Q: What is your favorite “moment” (example of how your organization helped)?

A: Every day is a busy day for ACTS volunteers, but they all know the value of what they do and are enriched from their efforts when someone’s situation is so obviously improved by the loan of equipment ACTS supplies. On more than one occasion, I have been thanked by grateful clients that acknowledge that without our equipment, their lives would be very different. All these instances make everything we do memorable.

Q: What is your biggest challenge?

A: Our greatest challenges are staffing and fundraising. We are always in need of volunteers and donations.

Q: What advice can you give someone looking to work at a non-profit?

A: Prepare yourself for the addictive feeling of self-fulfillment that comes with doing something meaningful for others.

Q: How can people get involved with your organization?

A: We encourage anyone interested in finding out more about ACTS to call our President, Sam Brown, at 410-610-8964 or myself, Chip Burton, at 301-769-2920. Additionally, if you have the time, stop by our warehouse on the grounds of the Seventh District Optimist Club in Avenue Saturday afternoons and look us over. If you hang around, we’ll put you to work! Our phone number at ACTS is 301-769-4199.