Three women pitch in to brighten holidays for AZ children

In 1998 Judge Paul Donaldson and his wife Kathy formed Arizona Helping Hands as a volunteer group to do good deeds for others.

Kathy had made a promise to her dying sister, Patty Neroni to do one good deed a day for someone else – this was the founding principle of AHH.

Dan Shufelt, executive director of Arizona Helping Hands, and AHH Board Member Gail Coronato organize this year’s holiday toy drive conducted by the organization. (Bret McKeand/Scottsdale Independent)

The first project undertaken by this small fledgling group was to hold a holiday toy drive to provide gifts for less privileged children in our community.
From its very humble beginning, storing and distributing toys out of the Donaldson garage, this project has mushroomed into one of the largest toy distribution programs in Arizona.

Three women have chaired this program from its inception: Founder Kathy Donaldson, AHH Board member Gail Coronato and Dedicated Volunteer Jean Nelson.

Each year they devote hundreds of hours to work toward the goal of ensuring that every child in need has a gift to open at the holidays. The AHH toy drive grew from that garage into a series of storage units, to a vacant grocery store whose use was granted by Eddie Basha, and eventually to sites leased by AHH.

The toy drive is now run out of the organization’s 8,000-square-foot facility in Scottsdale, where our year-round programs provide basic needs to kids in foster care. The demands of the toy drive puts a strain on our warehouse in November and December, sorting toys, packaging gifts, handling the thousands of requests for assistance.

This year two satellite locations were utilized to distribute gifts to so many children who asked for a helping hand at the holidays.

Through all of these holiday seasons, there has been one constant to the program, three women who work their hearts out to make this program click. None of these ladies has ever taken a penny for their service, rather they are compensated by the thank-you notes and hugs of gratitude they receive from the families we work with.

Families constantly tell us their kids will have a glow on their face, and mom and dad can feel happy at the holidays, thanks to Arizona Helping Hands – and to Kathy, Gail and Jean.

It truly is amazing how this program has grown, now providing thousands of toys behind the scenes to other charities, nonprofits and schools, in addition to the families we help directly. Over the past two Decembers, the Department of Child Safety was gifted 10,000 items to stock their holiday toy pantries in DCS offices around the state.

Support for this program spreads far and wide. Early on, Kathy (who along with all of us at AHH refers to herself as a “Dreamcatcher”) made a connection with the NBC Today Show Holiday Toy Drive, which has contributed annually to the drive.

The three women most responsible for the success of Arizona Helping Hand’s annual holiday toy drive over the past 19 years: Kathy Donaldson, Gail Coronato and Jean Nelson. (Photo courtesy Arizona Helping Hands)

In 2016, 80-plus local businesses, church groups and even families held drives or parties soliciting toy donations to assist in the cause. Southwest Airlines, the Bob & Renee Parsons Foundation and Mattress Firm all joined in this year to provide thousands of toys.  Volunteers contributed countless hours to get the sleighs loaded for our distribution days. It truly is a communitywide effort!

A couple of years ago, after our distribution was over (the toys had been packed up and the warehouse had returned to a sense of normalcy), a young couple came to the front door of AHH with their 5-year-old son, Billy. Mom told us they’ve never asked for help, but this year was particularly hard and that dollars just weren’t available for Christmas gifts for Billy.

Billy told us “My mom says Santa won’t be coming to our house this year.”  Through her tears, Gail marched back into the warehouse, and packaged up gifts for Billy’s mom and dad to take home and put under the tree, because Arizona Helping Hands wants to ensure Santa stops at the house of every little boy and girl.

Thanks to three women, we get closer to that becoming a reality every year. Three women– plus 19 years and thousands of hours of service — all add up to a glow in the eyes of hundreds of thousands of boys and girls!

Thank you Kathy, Gail and Jean – you certainly are Dreamcatchers for the children of Arizona!

For information on this topic or to contact the author, email dshufelt@azhelpinghands.org. Learn about Arizona Helping Hands at www.azhelpinghands.org.  Read more of Dan’s blog posts at http://www.azhelpinghands.org/blog-post/

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