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
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 determinationtowels, 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
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 familiesencountering 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 hera 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 understandingwhat
the season's all about.
For more information or to sign up for the Adopt-a-Family
program contact Bonnie Towle, x4-2167 or firstname.lastname@example.org,
or Kat Occhipinti, x4-8135 or email@example.com.
Kat Occhipinti (left) and Bonnie Towle
have been organizing the Adopt-a-Family program for over a
decade. Photo by Jennifer O'Sullivan.