Rising to the Occasion
TSRI Employees Adopt Families in Need for Holiday Season

By Jennifer O'Sullivan

Believe it or not the holiday season is upon us, and while these seasonal celebrations are often spent with family, 'tis also a great time to extend that family. It's a time when the opportunity to give to those less fortunate is made just a bit more convenient by people like Bonnie Towle and Kat Occhipinti.

For over a decade Kat and Bonnie, administrative assistants in the Department of Immunology, have been organizing the Adopt-A-Family program, working with agencies such as the YWCA Battered Women's Shelter and St. Vincent De Paul's to unite families in need with members of labs and departments at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) and Scripps Clinic who'd like to give. Employees who participate in the program learn the names, ages, and gift wishes of their adopted family. Then, they schedule a time a few days before Christmas to deliver the wrapped gifts along with food, either prepared or in the form of supermarket gift certificates.

I spoke with Bonnie and Kat about the work involved in pulling the program off each year. "We're just the intermediaries," Bonnie said. "We set up labs with families and let them do their own thing." According to Bonnie, TSRI employees always rise to the occasion. "There was one P.I. [prinicipal investigator] who even dressed up as Santa." And yes, there can be minor difficulties, such as when children ask for pricey Play Stations or computers. "Kids wish big sometimes," said Kat, "and sometimes wish so small it makes your heart ache."

Parents often skip their own wish lists. "I usually deal with battered women's shelters," Kat told me. "The basics that make up the mothers' 'wishes' really highlight both their need and their determination—towels, a nice outfit to go job-hunting, things for the home. They're so brave."

Listening to both women, I get a strong sense of their commitment to the program as well as the joy it gives them to make it happen. Bonnie has visited the same family four years in a row, and also delivers food and gifts for labs that adopt families, but whose members aren't in town to play Santa. "That's the best part," she confides with a warm smile.

Therein lies the beauty of the Adopt-a-Family program. Individuals can contribute as much or as little time and money as they choose. But, by pooling resources, they make the holiday special for a seven-year-old who otherwise might not get to unwrap that Barbie doll or box of Crayolas on her wish list, or that ten-year-old who might not otherwise sit down to a feast with his family.

Head Start Appreciated, Procrastinators Welcome

After so many successful years, the Adopt-a-Family program seems to be a smooth-running machine. Still, those crucial match-ups are no small task, considering in 2000 Kat and Bonnie helped groups at TSRI and Scripps Clinic adopt 58 families, a record high.

In one notable incident last year, Bonnie sent out a last-minute email announcing that a TSRI lab was buying gifts for a family of five, "a mom and four kids," but was looking for another lab to pitch in for the food. "We got so many responses that not only were we able to match up the lab, we also combined individuals to adopt a whole new family," Bonnie beamed. "I don't know if it was because people suddenly attached an actual family with the donation or not, but it was tremendous."

In fact, it was my lab that ended up buying food and toiletries for that family of five. Once I saw Bonnie's email I decided to put faith in my co-workers and sign us up despite some lab members' hesitation. It paid off. At our next lab meeting I informed everyone that we had indeed adopted a family and that donations were welcome, but not mandatory. Before long the money came pouring in and I was ready to shop. (Helpful tip: if you're in charge of collecting money, keep a wad of ones and fives on hand to make change.)

While latecomers are welcome, the best time to adopt a family is now. Bonnie and Kat have circulated an email listing the different agencies involved and the particulars of working with each. Organizers at Home Start, for example, ask that presents be dropped off by December 12 and deliver gifts themselves. St. Vincent DePaul, on the other hand, encourages direct interaction with the family.

What the Season's All About

Many of us know the kind of joy that comes from giving to others, but as with any worthwhile endeavor, there can be obstacles along the way. Bonnie spoke openly with me about situations that might occur when delivering gifts directly to families—encountering a run-down apartment building or a proud father who has a hard time accepting charity. First, Bonnie said, we must remember that we're not there to pass judgement. Second, keep in mind our job is to sprinkle a little holiday magic around because this is really for the children.

One of those children Bonnie will never forget is a three-year-old Hispanic girl. "When we brought the presents in her eyes grew as big as saucers," Bonnie told me. "She levitated. I mean, she was so excited she just vibrated."

After hearing Bonnie's story, I was especially anxious to see the kids when we brought gifts to our adopted family shortly before Christmas. At first, I was disappointed when their mother said they were all in the bedroom because she'd rather they didn't see a group of strangers bringing in the gifts. What I got instead was a hug from her—a full, strong hug that lasted a moment longer than I think either of us expected it would. And when we pulled away I found I'd been zapped with one of those pure bolts of understanding—what the season's all about.

For more information or to sign up for the Adopt-a-Family program contact Bonnie Towle, x4-2167 or email-btowle@scripps.edu, or Kat Occhipinti, x4-8135 or email-occhip@scripps.edu.



Kat Occhipinti (left) and Bonnie Towle have been organizing the Adopt-a-Family program for over a decade. Photo by Jennifer O'Sullivan.