It's a wrap: Volunteers help brighten holidays for children


By Paul Janczewski
Legal News

Long before the first dinner is served, or the first child unwraps a gift or gets his picture taken with Santa Claus, at the annual Community Holiday Dinner, courtesy of the Genesee County Bar Association/Genesee County Bar Foundation, things are hectic behind the scenes.

While officials and volunteers begin working behind the scenes on the next year’s dinner within days of completing the present one, it all comes to a head on the GCBA “Wrap Day Party.”

This is not to be confused with a “rap party,” where a booming bass and singers encourage crowds to swing and sway and wave their hands around. But this one is no less raucous. It features volunteers snipping and cutting wrapping paper, with scissors and tape and the chatter of conversations filling in the background beat as they wrap 500 Christmas presents for the kids.

The wrap party was held Monday, Dec. 3, in Flint at the E. Court Street offices of the GCBA/GCBF. From 3 p.m. until well past 7 p.m., volunteers, working in two shifts, transformed the office into a gift wrapping factory. Pizza and soft drinks fueled them as they worked their way through the mounds and mountains of presents. Tape and wrapping paper was provided, and the only requirement for volunteers was to bring their own scissors.

Every desk became a wrapping station. Piles of toys, games and other gifts took up every inch of the desk not used for wrapping. A long conference room table became a way station where no fewer than eight volunteers chatted and wrapped.

One table was piled high with wrapping paper and other essentials for the job. A nearby barrel held dozens of rolls of festive wrapping paper. One volunteer was wrestling with a roll of uncooperative wrapping paper, which prompted another to say, “Don’t worry, the paper is only going to be on a short amount of time” before being torn off by anxious children.

Star Estep, a lawyer referral specialist at the GCBA, could hardly see over her desk due to the stacks of gifts awaiting the festive wrap.

She’s been doing this for a dozen years and said she gets pleasure from seeing the kids’ faces light up as they receive their gifts.

At another desk, Mary Jo Thoma and her daughter, Eileen, a senior at Powers Catholic High School, were busy wrapping. Mary Jo, whose husband is an attorney, said she also shops through the year for gifts.

“I love to shop. I’m a good deal shopper.”

This was one well-oiled machine of efficiency. In no time, stacks of wrapped gifts were placed along the walls, and on the floor, each stack signifying if it was a boys toy or a girls toy, separated by different age groups. All that remained at the end of the day was warehousing all the wrapped toys in preparation of the December 18 annual dinner at the Masonic Temple.

Tatilia “Tina” Y. Burroughs, the executive director of the GCBA, oversees the Wrap Party. She said at last year’s dinner about 500 gifts were handed out to the children of needy families.

“And we plan on giving away about the same as last year,” she said.

The search for gifts begins almost as soon as the dinner ends.

“It takes three volunteers and myself, and we spent two days shopping,” she said.

While their search for gifts occurs near the holidays, Burroughs said other volunteers come across gifts and deals throughout the year during their normal shopping trips and drop those off.

“It’s really a year-round effort,” Burroughs said. “We start planning for next year as soon as this one’s done.”

Burroughs said some toys are donated, while others are bought through financial contributions by members of the GCBA or through funds provided by the GCBF.

And the people who buy the gifts hit local outlets, often using coupons or sales to get the best bang for the buck.

“We become very resourceful,” Burroughs said.

Literally everything connected to the dinner is donated. Some volunteers head out the day after Christmas for wrapping paper, and to cash in on those deals.

The gifts are broken down according to gender and age groups – toddlers, age 3-4, age 5-6, age 7-9, age 10-12, and 13 and up. This year’s gifts include cars, Legos, Crayons and coloring books, artsy-crafty items, hairbrushes, board games, make-up kits, gloves and hats, and more.

“Our goal is to make sure every child who attends the dinner gets a gift,” Burroughs said. “It’s our way of giving back to the community.”

Burroughs said the dinner and gift giveaway could not happen without the hundreds of volunteers who give their time, money, or both.

“This runs on the volunteers,” she said. “Genesee County has some of the greatest people. They’re very giving of their time and of their financial contributions, and if it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be able to succeed at all.”

One of the most important people behind the annual holiday dinner is local attorney Brian M. Barkey. Barkey has just returned after driving around the city, dropping off fliers to local soup kitchens, social service agencies, shelters, churches and elsewhere, letting people know the date and time of the dinner. His goal is to make sure anyone and everyone in need knows the dinner will be held Tuesday, Dec. 18, from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Masonic Temple, 755 S. Saginaw Street in downtown Flint.

The dinner features all the normal holiday items, such as turkey, ham, potatoes, desserts, punch and vegetables, courtesy of the Battiste family, which operates the Masonic Temple It has not gone unnoticed by the volunteers that Barkey arrives just in time for the food at the wrapping party.

“We’re rocking it!“ Burroughs says of the stacks of wrapped gifts. “Did you see everything?”

As for Barkey, he admitted, “I’m the worst wrapper,” bar none.

“I only come for the pizza,” he said with a smile.

Those who know Barkey, 67, an attorney who concentrates on Social Security disability cases, represents the Genesee County Parks Commission and does mediation work, realize he’s only kidding. If not for him, the annual dinner would not have been the success it has become.

He said it all started in 1992, when he was the vice president of the GCBA. A local judge told him of a holiday dinner put on by the bar in Saginaw. He and another person visited to see how it was operated, and returned to Flint determined to make it happen here.

“The Saginaw people glowed when they talked about this dinner,” Barkey said.

He presented the idea to the GCBA Board, and immediately, people reached for their checkbooks to help. In three months, Barkey organized the first dinner. It was so uplifting and rewarding, a second dinner was held the same year.

This years marks the 22nd dinner, in 21 years.

“This has really caught fire with our association,” Barkey said.

He has worked on the first, and everyone since. To ensure he would eternally be placed on the holiday dinner committee, Barkey began calling himself “Chairman for Life.”

Barkey raised funds to cover expenses at that first dinner, recruited volunteers, handled the public relations, chose the location and negotiated the costs. Several hundred people showed up for the first, but it has grown steadily through the years; 1,200 people were served last year.

Barkey has also had an outpouring of volunteers, so now there are 16 captains who oversee various aspects of the event. He estimates that about 140 volunteers work the dinner alone, spread among various captains, and more than 50 others contribute something to the effort, either that night or during the year. Some volunteers return year after year, and perhaps a dozen have worked each and every dinner.

Officials have estimated Barkey has raised more than $75,000 through the years, that more than 10,000 people have been fed and more than 5,000 presents handed out.

This is just one effort that has earned Barkey the Unsung Hero Award from the State Bar Association in 2009 and the Herbert Milliken Award a year later. He is also an avid runner and has contributed his time and effort to the Crim Road Races. To many, he is known as “St. Brian.”

The dinner really is a celebration of giving. Crowds overtake all three floors of the Masonic Temple as a choir and other entertainers belt out holiday favorites. And if some needy have no transportation, Barkey and his crew make arrangements to get them there.

Planning for the following year begins almost immediately, as Barkey and the captains go over how the dinner went, what went right, what went wrong, what should they try differently.

He said the success is measured more in not what he and the volunteers are giving, but what they are getting back.

“This makes their heart grow in their chest,” he said. “I get choked up talking about it.

People are in this profession to help people. That’s what motivates them. And when they get to a point when they can actually physically do something to help somebody, I get enormous support.”

He said in 21 years of holding the dinners, attorneys and others have always come through.

“This association has paid every penny, they buy presents all year round, they work on the dinner, and we are never short of money, we are never short of volunteers. It’s wonderful.”

Barkey said he will do this until he dies.

“After all, I am Chairman for Life.”