[Life] Angels Among Us at Christmas

 Angels flying close to our hometowns

Salvation Armey Giving Tree in place at First Choice Barbers

 by Mike Siroky

There is proof that angels live among us.

Each holiday season, the Salvation Army places Angel Trees in businesses. The idea is children in need of presents have ornaments with their names on them hung on the trees and then anyone can come by, answer the request and deliver the goods back to the tree site.

The children get a renewed belief in Christmas.

The donors get much more.

So it is that a brand-new business, First Choice Barbers in Portage, 5973 McCasland Ave., has such a tree in place.

But that is only the first part of the holiday happiness story.

Carlos Chavez is the new proprietor of the business.

But he is not new to the idea of sharing Christmas joy. He started as a recipient.

“Times were tough and we accepted what we could when I was a kid,” said the Portage native. “When I was a kid, things were tough for us, too, so I know what it is like to hope for something you want for Christmas.

“So, while this is actually first one I’ve done, it is part of giving back to my community.”

He said his sister-in-law had the idea and told him about the Angel Tree and the Salvation Army.

“So I made some phone calls to find out about it,” Chavez said.

“I volunteered for 50 kids and they actually got quite emotional about it, said they had never had anyone start with 50. It apparently is a large number, but it is the number I picked.”

Vicki Burge is part of the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree program.

“We are all over Porter County, through Chesterton and Valparaiso,” Burge said. “As many as we can get out.

“The key to this is to make sure even the neediest kids get at least something new for Christmas, nothing used, something to unwrap.”

Thought children are the centerpiece, the families and the family of the community also benefit.

“Everybody has needs,” Burge said.

And the Army answers. The rewards for the givers may be greater than the rewards to the recipients.

Burge has eight years’ worth of stories to tell.

“I rode on a firetruck with firemen who were answering the requests of a child who was dying of cancer,” she said. “They answered his every wish.”

Burge said the Angel trees are just part of the larger giving season.

“We have a Neediest Families program, where other families will pick a name and supply gifts for everyone. It is like they adopt that family.”

One of the nicer stories this season is of a family group not from the area who chose Porter County for a family reunion because that is where their family started, though none of them live here now. They are all from other states.

“They had researched us and knew what we were doing and they adopted a family, even though they are not in this area anymore,” Burge said.

“Overall, it is pretty cool. We encourage people to look at the requests as kind of a guidance but to make their own choices as to how much they can help.”

Burge said there is a real sense of “Do right thing.”

“A lot of people (among donors) say doing the right thing is of crucial importance,” Burge said.

Distribution is done on separate days, one for food, one for families and the last Friday before Christmas for the toys. Businessmen have volunteered space for the distribution. Volunteers help with the dispersals.

Another crucial aspect is all the donors want to be anonymous. This is a gift from the family of the community to families in the community.

And so the joy spreads.

“Every time a family comes to get the gifts, they also get a gift certificate for food,” Burge said. “We decided to not be so presumptuous to pick out their Christmas dinner so they go to local grocery stores and pick out their own.”

The stores thus join in the joy as they help feed the community.

Chavez believes in his hometown. In a sense, it is how he has become a new businessman in it.

“I have cut hair my whole life,” he said. “But I just graduated to get licensed.”

The 1992 graduate of Portage high school had a lot of jobs since then. He was most recently a mechanic before this. He wanted to become a certified electrician but was told there was a five-year waiting list just to start.

“But I made being a barber my first choice. I can’t complain about the way it is working out,” Chavez said. “Barbering was more than finding a means to an end.”

The immediate plan was to “give back” to the community, he said.

“Customers just don’t stop here with gifts; their generosity is amazing and they keep giving and giving.”

The site of the shop was established as a neighborhood barber shop, even if the most-recent former owner sort of just drifted out of business.

“It had been a barber shop since 1959,” Chavez said. “It was one barber shop, then another then another.”

Now it is all his.

“I don’t even think about it as work,” Chavez said. “Not many people can say they found what they wanted to do all their life and then did it.

“When I got my hands on it and reopened it, it was just right.

“I had always goy my hair cut here. My goal was to come to this barbershop because it had been established for 30-40-50 years. Everyone once liked the barbers here.”

The traditions of such barbering are not lost on the new guy.

“I figured we can do a little more, make it the way it is supposed to be,” Chavez said.

“We have a motto: ‘If they butcher it, we’ll fix it.’

“Come and get in the chair and we’ll make it look like you had a real barber.”

It’s a slight dig at the national chains of barbers. Chavez observed you never know what you are going to get there. And the person who cuts your hair this time might not even be around when next you need a haircut.

“It’s all about consistency,” Chavez said. “Everyone wants to be able to say, ‘That’s my barber’ and know what to expect every time.”

The neighborhood sometimes seems whole again with a business in a familiar place with a familiar face running it

“So many customers come in and are so happy to see the shop reopened,” Chavez said. “It is open six days a week and I am always here.”


[Life] Love And Devotion To The Children Of The Community Blooms All ’Round For Veterans

Love And Devotion To The Children Of The Community Blooms All ’Round For Veterans


New blooms signal the annual regeneration of our area. Folks are thinking of gardens to be planted, the summery weather just now weeks away.

And Toys For Tots.

Of course, it’s always the season for Toys for Tots.

Oh, sure, the national program pops up on our television screens round about Thanksgiving. And we all remind ourselves that this year, we will help some child enjoy Christmas by donating a new toy.

And we all are aware the Marines are the driving force in this worthy endeavor.

But it just doesn’t all come together at Christmas.

In Valparaiso area, the Dunes Leatherneck Detachment wirks on the project all year.

As you might expect, it is much more than the main event. All the servicemen involved stress all they do is “for the children” first, last and always.

Yet there is the undeniable spirit of camaraderie, the coming together of those who served, the special bond that exists when you earn the title of Marine.

Jim Atkinson of Valparaiso is intimately involved in the Toys for Tots campaign and all the ancillary projects that spring forth, including Marines helpings Marines.

Right now, for instance, the group is reaching out to all the latest veterans as they return from deployments.

The Marine family continues to grow. They want the newest members to remember they are honored and welcomed. Atkinson is the accredited Veterans Service Officer for the area, which means he facilitates the answers for any need of any veteran.

As Past Commandant of Indiana Mike Leeper said, “We are veterans helping veterans.”

“Everybody is our wing is either a former Marine or associate members,” Atkinson said.

And we do pretty much help families here and there, not only in the Christmas season, October through the middle of January.”

This past season, Toys for Tots affected 1,720 children, the best effort to date, surpassing 2009 and 1,444 children helped.

“We do have active servicemen as well and that helps a great deal,” Atkinson said.

“But, overall, you get out of something what you put into it.”

As the economy has hit a rough patch these past few years, The Dunes Leatherneck Detachment has received more rather than less. It seems working families realize they may still be able to show a kindness to their hometowns and do so through Toys for Tots.

“We are astounded and so happy the general public is so generous in the way they provide money and gifts,” Atkinson said.

“Children who do not have any other way to have Christmas are helped.

“Folks rise to the occasion and help out, moreso in the past two or three years the when the economy was bad. The need is so much greater but so are the donations.”

He said it comes down to the wire every holiday season.

“You can be very, very concerned,” Atkins said. “But the last two or three weeks people just give of their hearts.

“They always have met the need.”

Dune Leatherneck Detachment if an official organization, charted through the Marines, to assure every donor this is legitimate.

Atkins said this year marks the first decade of being involved locally and, “We’ll continue to do it as long as we can. Once someone doesn’t need our services, we just ask they donate for someone else. They all do.”

The outreach to newly returning soldiers is indeed a nice side benefit of staying in the public’s eye.

As the Veterans Service Officer,  he wants to help any returning vet, if only to let them know there are plenty of servicemen ready to just sit and listen and offer all the help they need to get back where they want to be.

“We don’t do this for publicity, we do it for the children and anyone who needs help,” said Atkinson.

Joe Baczynski is another member of the Dunes Leatherneck Detachment.

“Yes, we’ve been the official Toys for Tots agent in Porter County for 10 years,” said Baczynski.

“When I was growing up, I had Christmas. Mom and dad weren’t the richest, but they made sure we had Christmas under the tree.

“So, I thought, everybody gets that.

“With so many single parents . . .  the kids didn’t ask to be in this situation.

“What I think of is every child, all year ’round, deserves Christmas.”

Baczynski said the group has gotten creative in growing funds.

As an example, many of the corporate-sponsored gold outings in Porter County make bringing a new toy part of the tournament fee.

“And we collect ’em,” said Baczynski.

And, like Atkins, he said they quietly work whenever there is a need, just not at the holidays.

“We try to stay aware,” Baczynski said.

“If someone gets their house burned out in a fire, we’ll ask what can we do to help. Clothes, toys, whatever we can do.”

Like all the Marines involved in the Leathernecks group, Baczynski sees a simple credo.

“I do it for the kids,” he said. Parents, guardians, schools, all connect with the group and they assess the situation.

“The little ones, that’s who we think about,” he said.

“We don’t do it for recognition, but if talking about it helps donations, we’ll talk.

“What I tell people is, ‘We’re always here.’ Now, it may not always be me — when I am gone, someone else will take my place – but don’t hesitate to use us.

“When you don’t need us, then can think of me the next time you see a box and you put a toy in it.

“That’s the biggest thank-you we could ask for, knowing someone else’s little boy or girl will have Christmas.”

Baczynski points out the national Marine Corps League consists of former active duty and active duty Marines and also Fleet Marine Force medics, with the associate members.

He said the Vietnam Veterans of America are almost all dual members of the League.

“We don’t lack for help every year when it is time for toy distributions,” Baczynski said.

That flows from the Valparaiso Armory, the Saturday preceding Christmas.

As an example of inspiration Baczynski has taken from the children of the community, he cites the “young lady” from a local Boys & Girls Club who won an art contest. With the win came a monetary6 prize.

“In turn, she told her mom and dad she wanted to buy toys with that money, not for herself, but to be donated to Toys For Tots.

“Then there’s the little guy who, at his sixth birthday, asked for unwrapped gifts for Toys for Tots. He was back again this year – now he’s eight.”

 “That’s showing the community what we do.”

Baczynski summed up his devotion to this project.

“We like to work hard. Most of us have worked hard all of our life. But we want to work harder. So, if we get more we can work harder.”