When Theodore “Teddy” Earley was told Friday morning he could pick a toy from a table of books, games and play sets, he went straight to the puzzle of the United States.
“He knows all of the capitals,” said proud grandmother Wanda Jaiman.
Hugging the puzzle to his chest, Teddy rattled off a few and beamed when volunteers from the Greater Miami Jewish Federation told him he could pick out another toy.
“I’m really happy,” said the 7-year-old, who is living at the Salvation Army in Miami with his grandmother and sister. “This is fun.”
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Jaiman said her grandson and 6-year-old granddaughter, Sophia — who gleefully picked out a pink watch and bracelet-making kit — wouldn’t otherwise get Christmas presents or a nice holiday meal.
“It’s great to see them so happy,” she said. “I really didn’t expect much today.”
The volunteers — comprised of adults and young children — came to the Salvation Army as part of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation’s annual Jewish Community Volunteer Day held on Christmas.
“We saw a need in the community, and this is a way we can fill it,” said Lori Tabachnikoff, director of the Jewish Volunteer Center of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.
On Friday, more than 400 volunteers participated in more than a dozen projects at shelters, hospitals and community centers —including the Ronald McDonald House, Miami Rescue Mission, the Chapman Partnership for the Homeless and Palm Garden of Aventura Nursing Home.
Judith Mori, the director of development at the Salvation Army, said being able to count on the volunteers is a great gift.
“This not only gives our staff a chance to rest, but it also gives our clients a sense of normalcy,” she said.
At the Salvation Army, there were two projects: preparing a festive Christmas dinner and serving lunch.
The volunteer crew for the dinner preparation included two chefs, who arrived at 9 a.m. and raided the pantry and refrigerator to come up with a “fancy” menu.
President of Eggwhites Special Event Catering Gary Lampner, who has been preparing Christmas dinner for several years, said the idea is to transform packaged and frozen food into a restaurant-quality meal. Among the offerings: tilapia francais, guacamole, sun-dried cherry and cranberry chutney and roasted turkey.
“For us, it’s about being able to give back,” said Lampner. “This is fun for us.”
Chef Steve Brotman said they try to come up with a menu that engages the volunteers and gives them a chance to feel like they are participating.
For those volunteering to serve lunch, including gifts for the adults and kids made the experience better.
“Everyone wants to be a kid on Christmas,” said Melanie Stewart, who led the toy collection effort with her husband and two sons.
Volunteer Jennifer Clarin said that when they served lunch last year at Salvation Army it felt like they were missing something.
“We want our children to understand the importance of giving back,” she said.
For Jaiman, seeing the volunteers, having a nice meal and getting gifts made what she thought would be just another tough day easier.
She has been living in the shelter since Dec. 7 when she had to leave her Miami Beach apartment because the building was sold. She said she didn’t have enough money to get housing on her own and was placed in the shelter. Most of her and the children’s stuff is in storage.
“It’s hard not being able to get them things,” she said.
And while she wasn’t looking, her granddaughter had a surprise for her. The volunteers let the little girl pick out a gift for her grandma.
“This is for me,” beamed Jaiman as Sophia handed her pink lip gloss and eyeshadow. “This is the best present ever.”