When it comes to giving back to a community, Arlene Simons leads the charge in a big way.
Take last Sunday afternoon, for example.
She and several other local businesses and individuals collected dozens of new bicycles and other toys to distribute to more than 1,000 needy families in a drive-thru and delivery event held at A.S. Life Care Services and Development, Inc. on Blandy Road in Milledgeville.
The facility is home to a non-profit organization.
Firefighters with Milledgeville Fire Rescue also participated in the four-hour event, bringing in a Santa Claus helper, as well as The Grinch for all the children who came out with their families.
Some children even got the opportunity to ride along in Engine No. 2 from fire headquarters.
This year’s event was held via drive-thru due to the coronavirus COVID-19 global pandemic, which hit Milledgeville and Baldwin County back in mid-March. All of the participants and volunteers at the event, including firefighters, wore masks to protect themselves and others from the virus.
“We felt that the drive-thru event was the safest way to pass out the gifts to these needy families in our community,” said Simons, a registered nurse and chief executive officer of the newly-opened facility that works closely with the Baldwin County Department of Children Services with its foster children program. “It feels great to know that we’re helping over 1,000 families this year in this community and to know that their Christmas is going to be a little brighter because of it.”
Simons, who grew in Milledgeville and later moved away and returned, said the event warms her heart.
“This is what Christmas is truly all about — helping others and realizing that is our savior’s birthday,” Simons told The Union-Recorder.
For the past five years, families throughout Milledgeville and Baldwin County, as well as surrounding areas of middle Georgia have been aided by Simons and her friends. The group is adamant about giving back to those in need.
“It’s the biggest blessing you can get when you give back to others,” said Simons.
Simons is the brainchild of the event, which started in Atlanta when she lived and worked there.
“I decided that my hometown needed more of an uplifting, so now I’m the owner of the Baldwin County Youth Services,” Simons said. “This is a foster care support system.”
Simons explained that she knew DFCS needed homes for foster children and she wanted to do whatever she could do to help place children in the care of local foster parents as opposed to local children having to be uprooted from their homes, their family, friends and the community they had become accustomed.
“A total of 80 percent of the children in the foster care program get sent away here in Baldwin County,” Simons said. “That means those children can no longer be part of the school system, etc. And that can, oftentimes, be just as tragic to these children. We’re trying to get people in this community to learn about the importance of becoming foster parents to these children, so they don’t have to move somewhere else.”
Simons said it bothers her greatly to see that foster children experience trauma in their young lives.
Some of the local foster children now live at the Baldwin County Youth Services, which once served as a daycare facility.
“I’ve always been in the business of helping children, which is why I decided to move back to Milledgeville and start this new service,” Simons said.
In past years, an in-house event has been held. For three years, the event was held at Baldwin High School.
“We’re excited that we could still do it this year, despite COVID-19,” Simons said.
Some of the children and adults helped through the special gift-giving event have experienced personal tragedies.
Simons said the need is bigger this year and attributes some of that to the fact that a lot of residents have been laid off due to the health crisis.
One such family helped through the special Christmas event was Kizzi Trawick-Walker family, of Milledgeville.
He and her three children, ages, 15, 14 and 11 were the victims of a house fire back in October. The family lost nearly everything they owned.
Walker has taught in the Baldwin County School District for the past 19 years. She is a fifth grade science teacher at Midway Hills Academy.
“Thank God no one was hurt, but my girls were home at the time of the fire,” recalled the veteran schoolteacher. “They were able to see the fire and they were able to get out OK.”
The cause of the fire remains undetermined.
Walker said Sunday’s event was a tremendous blessing to her and her family.
“This is a great help here at Christmas,” she said.
Also among those helped were Simone Smith and her four children, Jayson, 11; Jaya, 9; Jaycie, 8; and Navahda, 2.
Smith said she couldn’t thank everyone enough for the blessings that had been bestowed.
“It’s such a huge blessing,” Smith said. “I can’t thank everyone responsible for this enough.”
None of what happened this year would have been possible without the assistance and donations from sponsors. They included: Team Calvary, a local gospel band; Miller Trucking Company; the Marine Corps Toys for Tots Chapter of Baldwin and Jones counties; Leroy Hill, a former NFL football player; Cedric Watson and his wife, Tina; and Milledgeville Fire Rescue.
“We have many other sponsors, too, but these are some of our larger ones,” said Simons, who along with several staff members donned T-shirts with glowing Christmas lights on them.
City firefighters partnered with Simons’ organization to make the lives of three families even more special this Christmas by donating $500 to each of them to use as they see fit.
“The money was all raised from here in the community,” Simons said. “It’s a beautiful thing when people work together to make things happen for those less fortunate or after they have experienced some sort of a tragedy.”