It’s the most wonderful time of the year and through guided efforts of those past and present, America’s next generation of volunteers give new meaning to a classic catch phrase.
“I can’t say enough about these young volunteers,” said Nanci Conley, executive director of the American Red Cross Coastal South Carolina Chapter. “The Red Cross is 96 percent volunteers and the next generation is critical because we could not do what we do without them learning the needs and how things are done.”
Grand Strand residents Alex Savage-Davis, 21, and Kayla Connor, 19, both began serving their community at age 12.
Conley who has worked with Savage-Davis, Connor and students involved in Coastal Carolina University’s internship program with The Red Cross, stressed “understanding the dynamics and learning the Red Cross is important because the Red Cross is with you your entire life.”
She added that internships are a way “to become more engaged, support and help the community, enhance [students’] lives leading to a great partnership that lasts a lifetime.”
Conley said she recalls another student inter who was also named Alex.
“She was part of the Health Promotion Program and was a phenomenal intern,” Conley said. “After graduation, she went back to her hometown of Long Island, New York. When Hurricane Sandy came through, the young woman showed up at a Red Cross with her retired [New York City] fireman father because she knew and understood what the Red Cross does. … Without the benefit of her CCU internship, she wouldn’t have known the importance of what needed to be done.”
Janice Ash Sialiano, a volunteer who is the event coordinator for what is now known as Red Cross Christmas Day Dinner, which began the year Hurricane Hugo hit, said volunteers are the heart of the whole dinner.
What started as something for anyone who wanted fellowship and to be somewhere with others for the holiday, has continued with the motto turned 25-year tradition since that day in 1989 when 50 people were fed and 17 inches of snow fell.
This year is set to serve more than 6,000 dinners – free to anyone who needs a place to go for fellowship, food and fun – and preparations for the 25th annual Red Cross Christmas Day Dinner have been under way thanks to the efforts of many dedicated volunteers, young and the young-at-heart.
Debbie Connor, veteran volunteer and vice president of student affairs at Coastal Carolina University, said volunteers started this weekend with the first cooked bird slated to come out of the oven on Monday. “From that moment on, we are carving constantly.”
Connor said thousands of dinners are delivered to homes across the region by volunteers who show up as early as 8 a.m. to load their trucks.
She also noted young people like Savage-Davis are a perfect example for young people who serve. She also said through her job at CCU, she sees more young people who are much more passionate about the work they do for the community and who are more civically engaged.
Savage-Davis, who got her start in community service as a girl scout, has been a volunteer for the Red Cross Christmas Day Dinner when her mother “saw something bigger than her” and brought her there.
“I fill in the blanks where needed … and seeing it all come together, is amazing,” she said.
Connor said she became involved with the Red Cross Christmas Day Dinner because of her daughter Kayla, now a freshman in college.
“When Kayla was in sixth grade, she wanted to do something to help others, so she went to the principal, wrote a proposal for her plan, then collected over 500 coats,” Connor said. “And when my garage became so full that I couldn’t park my car in it anymore, I had to find a place where we could give away these coats Kayla had collected.”
She was put in touch with Sialiano and it went from there.
“Now,” Connor said, “every year there’s always that one special interaction with someone I didn’t know before that changes me and makes me know why I’m here.”
Connor’s daughter, who wanted to become a missionary and took her first trip to Kenya recently, continued to collect more than 2,500 coats through her senior year in high school.
Savage-Davis, who will graduate from Winthrop in May, runs track, worked three jobs over the summer to buy a car, plans to take the LSAT in February to study media law and said she doesn’t see herself giving up volunteer work any time soon.
The American Red Cross welcomes volunteers on Christmas Day and throughout the year. Sialiano and Connor both said they hope people who volunteer on Christmas will want to connect with the community all year long.