BALTIMORE – Ronnie and John Turner haven’t lived a luxurious life, struggling on John’s small salary as a steel mechanic to raise their seven children.
But time has been good to them, their children have grown, and the Turners have a little extra money and time to help others in the same straits they found themselves a few years ago. So they drive 22 miles from their home in Hydes, Md., three days a week to volunteer at the Salvation Army Toy Shop.
“I think it’s very moving because at one time I was on that side of the table, and I feel like I know where they’re coming from,” Ronnie Turner said, making clear that hunger and eviction were often at their door. “You know you’re not getting paid for it, you don’t care. There wouldn’t be enough money somebody could give you.”
Between September and December, the Turners are among hundreds of volunteers who converge on the nearly 10,000-square-foot warehouse to volunteer for the Salvation Army’s Angeltree Program, which will deliver more than 50,000 toys to tens of thousands of needy children in Baltimore City and Howard, Carroll, Baltimore and northern Anne Arundel counties.
“I can’t describe it. It’s like taking a drug almost. You just need more and more. It’s just such a good feeling,” said Ronnie, 65, who’s been volunteering for five years. John, 67, has been coming for three.
They work alongside volunteers from more than 170 corporations, churches, civic groups and schools to help sort toys for needy kids like Aaliyan, a 2-year-old who’s asking for princess toys, a Dora the Explorer doll and games. Tony, 4, wants a basketball, a bike and games while D’Ericka, 7, is hoping for a doll house, skates and dolls.
On this recent day, employees from Enterprise Rent-A-Car and T. Rowe Price, a Baltimore-based investment management firm, hum along to Christmas tunes from The Jackson 5 and Mariah Carey as they scurry through the aisles sorting toys.
“You almost feel like you’re bringing the Christmas spirit to the kids,” said Patty Allen, 43, a data architect for T. Rowe Price, which gives its employees paid leave to volunteer in the community for the day.
The Salvation Army has been working in Baltimore since 1880 and runs a bunch of other programs throughout the year, but “people really know us for Christmas,” said Maj. Gary Haupt, the Baltimore area commander.
There’s hardly a shortage of volunteers. T. Rowe Price employees have to put their name on a waiting list to volunteer, Allen said.
The 27-year-old program courts volunteers from everywhere — Boy Scouts, members of the Rotary and Kiwanis — to help out. Last year they hosted a group of mentally challenged children from Catonsville High School.
Everyone has their reasons for coming. Some jump at the chance to wear tennis shoes instead of high heels. Others enjoy the fresh air and change of pace. For Ronnie and John Turner, who are parents to seven, grandparents to 18, and great-grandparents to four, it’s about a special mission.
“We feel like in a way this is our ministry, behind the scenes,” Ronnie Turner said. “I think the Lord still sees you no matter what you’re doing.”
The volunteers don’t do much by the way of changing the world, but today they did make at least three Christmas wishes come true.
They got the Dora the Explorer magnetic drawing pad to Aaliyan, placed the neon green Mongoose racer bike with Tony’s other things and made sure D’Ericka got that Totally Real Barbie house.
“I look at all of the boxes and all of the names,” said Nathalie Robertson, 37, a volunteer who works as an administrative assistant for T. Rowe Price. “For me, I’m just thankful to know that all these kids will have a Christmas.”
Ronnie Turner is one of the last ones to leave. She lingers around the front of the warehouse to say her good-byes.
“We feel like this really is our gift. We don’t have a lot to give monetarily so we give up ourselves.”