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Features - Posted November 23, 2012 noon
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photos by Shannon Richardson
Siblings Margaret and Olen Thomas receive assistance through the Pantex Christmas Project.

Bringing Christmas

B&W Pantex employees, volunteers mark 57th year of assisting children, families and older adults in need during the holidays

Ripping into wrapping paper, strewing ribbons and tossing bows across the floor on Christmas morning is an unappreciated ritual for some of us. We complain when the present we wished for is not waiting beneath the tree. Sharing a meal, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ and spending time with family can be just another day of enduring a few hours with people we may only see once or twice a year. We gorge ourselves on heaping helpings of traditional holiday fare and scrape the scraps into the trash bin without a second thought.

However, for others, exchanging gifts Christmas morning, passing dishes of food around the table and giving thanks would be considered a blessing, one that is not guaranteed year after year. Christmas should be a time centered around giving, not receiving, and for more than half a century, B&W Pantex has one just that for the Amarillo community and surrounding areas. Celebrating 57 years of giving to and feeding individuals in need is quite a milestone. And through donating toys, clothing, food and other necessities during the holiday season, volunteers have the power to grant a memorable Christmas to those less fortunate.

“It started out as a group of employees that just started out giving Christmas cards to each other and they said, ‘Why throw away money exchanging these Christmas cards when we can put this money toward helping others?’” says Laci Hays, who has participated in the Christmas Project since she began working at Pantex five years ago.

At least 90 core volunteers contribute to the Pantex Christmas Project, but that’s not including the employees and their family members who lend a hand outside of the project, says Marlon Smith, who works in Waste Operations. Marlon joined the project eight years ago, five years after he joined the Pantex team. When he witnessed volunteers bestowing a generous Christmas upon children who otherwise would not receive one, memories of his childhood resonated, and he wanted to jump on board.

“Kids around the neighborhood I grew up in, a lot of the kids didn’t really have a great Christmas,” Marlon remembers. “As soon as I found out how they were blessing these kids, I wanted to be a part of it. They didn’t have the Christmas I had growing up, and I didn’t even have a great Christmas.”

The number of hours employees volunteer throughout the year is incalculable. When asked if they could take a guess, the room echoes with hearty laughter, ricocheting off the living room walls of Tamara Schaef’s home.

“We don’t think about that,” says Tamara, Pantex Christmas Project co-chair. “It wouldn’t be Christmas if we weren’t working on this.”

Through United Way’s Amarillo Christmas Coaltion, the Pantex Christmas Project operates as a 501(c)4, limiting it to raising $50,000 per year. It has raised $20,000 this year so far. When it all began, Operation Christmas Card sponsored three families. In 50 years time, that number has swelled to more than 150 children and at least 50 families per year. Last year 178 children and 54 families obtained assistance, and this year, 165 children and 53 families have been accepted into the program, according to Lennet Hernandez, project chair.

“If we have a fundraiser, [Pantex] will go over and beyond to make sure it’s successful,” Tamara proclaims. “We have our Supermarket Giveaway. It’s a raffle and businesses in Amarillo donate nice prizes. We sold over 7,000 tickets and made $12,000, just Pantex alone. If someone needs a bed or towels or blankets, things we take for granted every day, like a toaster, even plates, we donate.”
Throughout the year, Pantex puts on fundraisers for money to buy toys for children. It’s a year-long ordeal, but in August, that’s when the planning really takes over. In addition to the Supermarket Giveaway, Pantex also holds pecan sales and erects and decorates six Angel Trees around the plant in November.

“It’s a lot of hard work, this whole project,” Marlon admits. “There are a lot of volunteers and they put in their personal time. Throughout all the frustrations, once you see the kids’ faces and the happiness they have, it makes it worthwhile and easy to do it again.”

Each child is given two tags on the Christmas tree, which accounts for two outfits. For families, Pantex provides enough food, vouchers and stamps, toiletries and household goods to get them well into the New Year. The project, with the aid of local businesses, donates special items, such as furniture, medical supplies and eyeglasses as well.

Fundraising efforts culminate in 40-gallon trash bags of toys eager to be played with. And you don’t have to be a volunteer to make a difference. Some employees’ names may not be mentioned in writing, but they contribute their fair share through other forms of charitable acts.

“Enough can’t be said about the people behind the scenes,” praises Marlon. “One time I took three angels off the tree and you could just tell people, ‘I’m going to buy for these kids.’ The people that give money, it’s unbelievable. They say, ‘I can’t help with the project, but here’s $50, here’s $100.’ One year I had three kids, and I had like $180 for each kid to buy them clothes.”

Although the project is primarily geared toward children during the holidays, its undertakings continue year round for the older adults it assists. Last year, 15 adults were given aid, and this year, it’s 14. The older adults continue to receive support until they pass away, says Lennet, who has been volunteering for a decade.

Siblings Olen “Brother” and Margaret Thomas have been a part of the project for five years. “That’s my buddy over there,” Margaret says, jerking her head toward Lennet. “I sure appreciate them helping us out with the Christmas Project. If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t have Christmas. Beautiful. It’s just beautiful.”

Olen and Margaret lived in a crime-ridden area that wasn’t safe, and Pantex volunteers felt it was their duty to step in. When Lennet arrived at the Thomas’ door, they were skeptical of inviting her into their home.

“They let me in,” Lennet avers, gratitude in her voice. “They didn’t really let anybody in. Just me, personally. [The house] was nice, it was clean, but it was a shell. Within a week and a half, the word spread at the plant, and they had a new place, completely furnished, from a TV to bedding to bath. You want to tell them, Margaret? Brother, you remember when we got you moved over there?”

“Oh yeah!” he enthusiastically replies, rocking back and forth in his seat, Margaret nodding in harmony.

The volunteers also took Margaret and Olen shopping. She was fitted for undergarments and received an alteration for one of her dresses. Olen was given a suit and new shoes, and tailoring courtesy of Connie’s Alterations.

Lennet and the rest of the crew agree that they build personal connections and form priceless relationships with the families they bring into the program.
“For the short time you have with the families, to meet the family, you just get attached to the family,” Lennet explains.

“You’re our family,” Margaret sniffles, her pink cap toppling off her head as she collapses into Lennet’s arms. “Oh, I love you, Margaret. You’re our family. Don’t cry,” Lennet assures her.

After receiving applications during the month of October, volunteers interview candidates and decide who is most deserving of aid. The interviews with the families are an emotional process for the volunteers. When they enter a house and the children are sprawled out on the bare floor because there is no furniture, volunteers feel a need to intervene. The Pantex Christmas Project strives to help those who help themselves, says Allison Roberts, who has volunteered for eight of her nine years at Pantex.

“Tamara and I went to see a family the other day and a lady made us cry and I said, ‘I want to shop for them,’” Allison recalls as she gracefully gets situated on the floor. “We go visit and sometimes we just get a gut feeling. Sometimes I don’t say anything when I leave the house, but [my coworkers] can tell if I want to help that family or not.”

After a year of planning and months of sacrificing hundreds of hours, it’s time for the volunteers to come together with the project’s children, families and older adults at the Christmas party at the Amarillo Civic Center. Before the annual event was established six years ago, Pantex employees hand-delivered every single gift to children and families. With Santa Claus atop the fire truck in tow, from dawn to dusk volunteers drove semi-trucks full of toys and food until each one was empty. Although this was a personal endeavor, Pantex decided it was more secure to invite everyone to a pizza party where they could receive presents, socialize and participate in activities such as dancing and face painting, listening to a DJ, and of course, have pictures taken with Santa Claus, portrayed by 16-year Saint Nick veteran, Beau Hileman. If a family does not have a ride, volunteers pick them up and drop them off after the party. It’s an evening all of the families, including Olen and Margaret, look forward to every December. “Oh, there’s a lot of joy,” Olen beams. “I enjoy myself a whole lot.”

“We have 90-something volunteers so it gives them the chance to meet the families and interact with them and play games with them,” Tamara says. “Some of us leaders and right-hand people get to meet them, but there are a lot of people behind the scenes that don’t get to see the kids. It’s our thank you, our gift to them, but it’s kind of really a thank you to us because we get to meet them and enjoy their company for a couple of hours.”

But the highlight of the night, Lennet says, is when employees and family members take leftover food and drink to Faith City Ministries and the male volunteers unload some of the trucks downtown, handing out provisions to the homeless.

“The night ends like that,” Lennets says, her face lighting up, hands pressed beneath her chin.
The Pantex Christmas Project not only avails those living in need, but it also serves families suffering from tragedy, that may not possess the means to buy Christmas presents. A single, working parent raising children, who might not have a flexible schedule, may be struggling to make ends meet as it is, or disease or illness may strike, leaving families financially or physically incapable of putting gifts underneath the Christmas tree. At least four of the families in the program this year include an immediate family member who has been diagnosed with cancer, Tamara says, and they are severe cases.

“The kids are the ones who believe in Christmas,” Tamara adds.

“When parents ask for help, that’s why they ask, ‘Please help my kids have a great Christmas,’” Allison elaborates. “They’ll tell you, ‘I don’t need it. It’s for the children.’”

Lennet says the Christmas Project doesn’t just benefit the children and families, but the volunteers have learned so many lessons from these experiences as well. They appreciate what they own, and understand the difference between want and need. Lennet’s husband Joe is just one of the many family members of employees who volunteers time to play a part in Pantex’s philanthropic efforts, Marlon makes sure to add.

“Some families are just going through a hard time, just trying to get back on their feet, so we like to help them. They wait for the party to come… It’s so rewarding. We have story after story after story, and if I told you them, you’d be here for days,” Lennet pauses to catch her breath, wiping away the tears collecting on her eyelashes. “It changed my family. We don’t need.”

For more information about the Pantex Christmas Project, visit pantex.com or contact Project Chair Lennet Hernandez at 477-5034, Co-chair Tamara Schaef at 477-5808, or the Christmas Project Hotline, 477-5533.

by Drew Belle Zerby

After graduating from LSU in 2009, Drew Belle worked as a page designer in north Louisiana until moving to Amarillo and joining AGN Media in late 2010. In her spare time, she loves to read, travel and spout out useless movie trivia.
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