One hundred thirty-five kids, at least as many volunteers, parents, workers — they all needed to be wrangled into some sort of order. So Nouha Hreish, who with her late husband Albert has run Noal Jewelry Designs for 30 years on Edinger Avenue, grabbed the bullhorn.
With a big smile, she directed children and volunteers into their proper places, and the fun began.
The scene was Wal-Mart on Beach Boulevard and Talbert Avenue last Saturday on a clear, cool, breezy and early morning — about 6:30 a.m. For about 25 years, the Kiwanis Club of Huntington Beach has sponsored its Clothe the Children event, where local children in need are allowed to shop for themselves during the holiday season.
Hreish has helped run the event for 15 years, and in the midst of juggling at least a dozen things on this morning, she happily took some time to describe what it is all about.
"Kiwanis is about serving the needy children of the world," she told me, "and so we allow these local kids to come in to Wal-Mart with a $100 gift card. They are escorted by a Kiwanis volunteer, often a teenage Kiwanis Key Club member, and they get to spend about $90 on clothes, shoes and other necessities. Then they can buy a gift for themselves or a loved one with the remaining money."
This year, First Christian Church donated $2,500 and Wal-Mart contributed $1,000 (in addition to facilitating the vent), not to mention dozens of smaller donations from local citizens, which all went to cover the gift cards for the 135 kids.
During the shopping spree, parents wait outside the store, which gives the kids a chance for a little independence and responsibility.
Mike Grumet, who has been president of the HB Kiwanis since October, told me they find the kids through a network of five local schools and agencies including Project Self-Sufficiency and Colette's Children's Home. He also said that this event has come to define the main mission of the Kiwanis Club.
"For our organization, children are priority one," he said. "Serving one child, one community at a time, that's what Kiwanis International is all about. So this event is our poster child."
He introduced me to Jonathan Ford, a 29-year-old local dentist and former Key Club member who was on hand to assist with the beautiful morning madness by helping to organize the teenage volunteers. Ford takes the Kiwanian principles beyond Huntington Beach, too. He's part of a program that, four times a year, volunteers dental care and helps run dental clinics in Haiti and Mexico.
"At our clinic in Haiti this year, we were donating $150,000 in dental care over the course of three days," he said. "Working pretty much nonstop."
Ford added that when he was in high school and a Kiwanis Key Club member, Hreish was the local Kiwanis president. Such is the influence, continuum and staying power of the organization.
In the store aisles, children ranging in age from 4 up into their early teens were being led down aisles by volunteers, poring over sweaters, pajamas, slippers, shoes — all the basics. There were notable locals, including Shirley Dettloff and Don Hansen, helping out, along with dozens of teen volunteers and a good number of senior citizens.
Jon Groth, general manager of the Wal-Mart since it opened in 2002, stared out over the busy proceedings and seemed very pleased.
"We are committed to doing many positive things for the local community, and for all the events we do in Huntington Beach, I have to say that this is by far the best thing we do all year," he said. "It impacts so many people in so many positive ways. McDonald's partners with us to provide breakfast for everyone, my associates come in at 4 a.m. to get all set up — but it's the commitment of the Kiwanis that really makes it possible. They do amazing work."
That they do. To see all of these children have a chance to shop, have fun, make little budgets and shop for other family members (which many of the kids do) was a wonderful opportunity for everyone at the store.
I learned near the end of the event that three of the teenage volunteers were actually homeless themselves. But they wanted to be there to help with the younger kids just the same. Then I saw Hreish take three of the $100 gift cards and surprise the three young women by giving them each one.
The name "Kiwanis" comes from an Otchipew American Indian expression, "Nunc Kee-wanis," variously translated as "we trade," "we share our talents," "we make a noise" or "we meet." On this Saturday, they did all those things and more by giving 135 children in need some holiday sparkle and magic, providing leadership, a helping hand and lots of love.
CHRIS EPTING is the author of 18 books, including the new "Hello, It's Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie." You can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.