Merlene Davis: Operation Happiness needs help for the holidays

For 41 years, Clark Countians have taken care of their own at Christmas by donating to and volunteering with Operation Happiness.

After four decades, some readers are nodding their heads remembering the joy the project has brought to thousands of families in need. The rest of us are wondering why we haven't heard a peep about this project.

Darren Diguette, executive director of the Clark County Association for Handicapped Citizens and co-chair of the project, can't explain how we've missed it.

Some of the 400 volunteers who drive the project have worked with Operation Happiness for 20 years, he said. Diguette knows of volunteers who once were on the receiving end of the countywide charity and now are giving back.

"We have volunteers who are now in their 40s who remember going down and helping with their families when they were young," Diguette said. "My 7-year-old has gone down with me."

From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Dec. 21, known as the Day of Giving, about 1,500 families will pick up a box of food that includes a turkey breast and trimmings for their holiday meal and pantry staples, plus gifts for their children. Children 11 and younger will receive hats, coats and gloves and two new, age-appropriate toys. Teenagers will receive a bag that includes a fast-food gift certificate and movie passes.

The cost of food alone is nearly $40,000, Diguette said.

"All that money is raised just this year," he said. "Some of it comes from larger donations of $2,000 to $3,000. But most of it comes from checks of $25 or $35 to sponsor a family. That represents the best part of our community. Everyone pulling together."

The number of families asking for help increased by about 100 this year, which is a record, he said.

Judy Crowe, director of Clark County Community Services and co-chairman of Operation Happiness, said calls are still coming in to her office, which serves as a clearinghouse for the project by ensuring members of blended families are served only once.

"For some of them, this is the first time they have had to ask for help," Crowe said.

Although the deadline has passed, Crowe said some of the most recent need is from families in which the breadwinner has just been laid off.

"It may take them a day or two to find out who to call. It is the folks who generally work who are just now hitting this recession and who are in a panic," Crowe said. "It's not just welfare families."

But, because the deadline has passed, Crowe said the first distribution goes to those who followed the rules. If there is anything left, she will give it out the next day. "People who come the second day are the most desperate," she said.

Calls have come in for at least 20 families who would qualify for the second day distribution.

Recipients must be residents of Clark County. That's it. No income is verified. But, Crowe said, "We are not serving the wealthy."

The Winchester-Clark County Association of Churches began the project four decades ago, and now, with 1,500 families represented, about 10 percent of the 35,000 to 40,000 residents of Clark County benefit from it, she said.

But the Day of Giving is more than a time to pass through and pick up. Hot meals will be served, and Santa will be available for visits.

"They can enjoy the atmosphere and get out of the trailer or the apartment," Crowe said. "They can bring the children because the toys are wrapped."

If you would like to be a part of such a giving affair, volunteers are needed to help unload trucks, sort canned goods, build boxes, wrap toys and distribute the boxes at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 2410 West Lexington Road, Winchester.

Also, because of the record number of requests and a list that continues to grow, the project would appreciate donations of more toys or money. All donations are tax-deductible.

"This is one of the largest projects that is not backed by a national organization," Diguette said. "With an all-volunteer effort, we can provide families with a little bit of help. That makes a difference for those just getting by but who can't make Christmas special."

Clark Countians, I applaud you.

To come together as a community year in and year out, to take care of your own with just a little corporate help, that is worth knowing and remembering.