By Randall Jobe

In the true spirit of the season of giving, Houston’s own Montrose Center recently held a Volunteer Holiday Extravaganza. A dedicated staff and a cross-section of volunteers gave generously of their time to insure that 100 families in need experience the joys of a traditional meal and gifts for the children at Christmas.
The mammoth undertaking begins in September of each year, when products and services are assembled to create holiday baskets every December. Spearheaded for the past 20 years by the Center’s project manager, Frances Bueno, boxes are donated and wrapped by volunteers from Ernst and Young and are then filled to the brim with canned goods, dressing mixes, cranberry sauce, fresh fruit and bags of candy. When the baskets are picked up, a full turkey is added for everyone, plus stuffed animals for the children in each family.
On Sunday, December 11, more than 60 volunteers met to work as teams to make the magic happen. Young, old, female, male, straight, gay, lesbian and others pitched in. Montrose Center staffers Jay Mays, Meleah Jones with her young son and Kennedy Loftin worked side by side with a young mother and her two daughters. As she and her girls colored handmade cards for each basket, the mother remarked how important she felt it was to introduce the girls to “ giving back” at an early age.
Young 13-year-old Ethan filled out nametags for his two dads, Pedro and Clayton, who shared their family’s story. In the 23 years they had been partners, the couple had spent much of their time volunteering at work related venues in the straight community.
” Now we feel as if Ethan is old enough to be introduced to our community,” Clayton said.
Ethan, who readily moved from group to group, willingly assisting in any way he could, has been with Pedro and Clayton since he was 24 hours old.
“He is very accepting and social,” Clayton added.
A dynamic woman named Kim, a hairdresser with a style all her own, had recently moved from Florida and volunteered at the Montrose Center in part to meet people. Natalie, a young girl from Ernst and Young, originally volunteered with her job and later decided she could do more.
John assisted with checking in volunteers. At one time he actually needed some of the services offered by The Center and was now doing what he could to show his support—a reoccurring theme of the day.
According to Bueno, the event began in 1996 when 25 baskets were distributed. Several sponsors are involved including HEB, Walmart and Kay Jewelers Memorial City; the Galleria donated 120 stuffed animals. Cash contributions, including this year’s donation of $3,400 from Bunnies on the Bayou, are carefully spent; items are purchased in bulk and on sale.
“Food goods, and even the candy, are name brands,” Bueno proudly says. “ I go through circulars looking for the best prices. The candy is purchased at half-price the day after Halloween, but you’ll notice, there are no bats or ghosts on the wrappers!” Fresh fruit comes from the Farmer’s Market and this year the best-priced turkeys came from HEB.
Montrose Center case managers select clients who are in need and have the family (and extended families) to insure the preparation of the Christmas meal. They also make sure that each child is gifted with candy and a stuffed toy.
Bueno got teary-eyed as she shared her experience.
“The smiles on the faces of the clients, especially the children—that is the reason we do it,” she said with contagious enthusiasm. “ For the past four years we have managed to do 100 baskets. In 2015, we shared with 104 households. Next year we will shoot for about 150!”
That same enthusiasm was a theme all day as the multiple tasks were completed, everyone working side by side, sharing their own stories. In addition to the holiday baskets there was painting, power washing, and general sprucing of the Center.
Afterwards, volunteers were treated to a hot meal at tables covered in cloths and decorated with sparkle and tinsel. As the day ended, everyone undoubtedly left with a bit of the spirit of the season, warmth in their hearts and a commitment to finding future ways to share with others.
Mays, the Center’s community volunteer specialist, said the Center offers a variety of options for volunteers and welcomes all who would like to be involved. If you are interested and need more information, email her at jmays@montrosecenter.org. The Montrose Center is located at 401 Branard Street on the second floor, in Houston.

For more information, please call (713)529-0037 or visit www.montrosecenter.org.