Columbus, Ohio — Throughout the year, a number of full-time Soldiers, Airmen and civilian employees at the Ohio National Guard headquarters readily pay $2 for the opportunity forgo the duty uniform or designated professional attire of the day on dress-down Thursdays. These contributions have a direct impact on a group of children who attend a very special event held every December.
For more than 30 years, the Maj. Gen. Robert S. Beightler Armory Special Children’s Christmas Party has been an Ohio National Guard tradition maintained by the hard work of dedicated volunteers and a fundraising program fueled primarily by donations from Beightler Armory’s employee dress-down day participants.
“I look forward to it every year, it feels like Christmas has started when we start working on the party,” says Warrant Officer 2
Amber Springer, event board president. Springer is filling red and green balloons with helium and securing them to the backs of chairs with white ribbon. She works at the edge of a canopy created by a tactical parachute hanging from the center of the armory drill floor.
She soon delegates this work to another volunteer so that she can
direct a group of recently arrived youth volunteers in setting up the activities for the day. There are several groups involved in making this party happen, Springer says. Besides the volunteers from Beightler, members of a local Civitans organization wrapped the gifts and students of the Hamilton Township High School National Honor Society run many of the activities during the party.
Some of the student volunteers disappear and soon after, just as the children arrive, a troop of costumed characters appear to greet the children. A teenaged-sized moose and chipmunk give high-fives to children stepping off the bus outside. And just inside the armory children surround a holiday-themed mouse and snowman that are dispensing hugs.
The children’s exclamations of delight echo across the drill floor as they enter and their aides guide them under the parachute canopy to find places for their coats and bags at the tables there. The special nature of these children becomes apparent as the children in wheel chairs make their way off the lifts and join their classmates. An army of aides, parents and volunteers assisting the almost 100 special needs children is also in attendance.
“We think that this is the 12th year that the children of Madison
County have come to Beightler,” says Peg Johnson, the retired director of the Madison County Board of Developmental Disabilities.
Johnson has been one of the key organizers for this event for many years. “The children all have disabilities — cerebral palsy, autism, Down syndrome, Prader-Willi (syndrome) and a host of behavioral disabilities,” says Johnson. All the schools in the district have children present, from ages 2 to 22.
The drill floor is soon a flurry of activity with children and their aides moving from one activity to another. An inflatable basketball free throw game, bowling, face painting and Christmas craft stations keep the children entertained until lunch is served.
But many children fidget during their lunch of sloppy joes and chips. This is not their first year attending the party and they know who will be arriving soon after lunch.
Behind the stage beside several large felt sacks of wrapped presents is a gentleman who also works quickly to finish his lunch. “It’s fun to see them grow up and mature,” says retired Sgt.1st Class Bernie Miesse, who has been getting in “uniform” for this party since 1985. “They just light up when Santa comes,” says Miesse. “Most of them still believe with all of their heart, and it’s just a pleasure to put smiles on their faces.”
The gifts, like Santa, are a product of the spirit of giving within the Ohio National Guard. Funds raised during the years 26 dress-down days are used to purchase a gift of choice for these special children, says Springer. “We let them pick their top three choices from Wal-Mart or Toy R ‘Us online. And we do our best to make sure they get their first choice,” she says.
And as Santa calls out to boys and girls by name and gives them their presents, the only smiles that outshine those of the children are the ones of the caregivers present. “For many of our kids this will be the biggest part of Christmas. This will be the biggest toy they get,” says Johnson.
The caregivers are not the only adults present with big smiles; several volunteers bear them as well. “It’s very rewarding to see, it brings joy when you don’t expect it to,” says Springer as she helps prepare for Santa. Unfortunately the apron she wears partially covers the Christmas kitten sweater she wore especially for the party. And so she does not get the same attention that Soldiers and Airmen in uniform get crossing the drill floor to and from their duty. But for this holiday event it is the giving spirit of personnel when they are out of uniform that matters most.