Santa isn’t the only one looking out for Henrico County families during the holiday season.
For more than a decade, a heartfelt partnership between Safe Harbor and the employees at Dominion’s Innsbrook office has provided Christmas gifts for local families impacted by domestic violence.
Raj Harnal and Viki Armentrout, both consulting engineers at Innsbrook, have organized a Christmas gift drive for clients of Safe Harbor since 2004. Harnal brought the Angel Tree concept to Dominion after being involved with a similar donation effort in Connecticut. He connected with Safe Harbor through Armentrout, who at the time was a volunteer coordinator for Innsbrook and a member of Safe Harbor’s Board.
The first gift drive they organized was small, featuring a table-top tree which Harnal borrowed from a coworker and posted in one area of the building. By Christmas 2014, the Angel Tree received 220 presents and an incredible amount of gift cards for 24 families.
“It just kind of grew by word of mouth,” Armentrout said. “It’s hard, being engineers and technical workers, we’re geeks. It surprises me every year the charity that we do get from the folks here.”
Harnal recalled that in the first year, his wife Debra and their then-10-year-old son Jaz helped him and Armentrout deliver the gifts to Safe Harbor’s shelter house, where they met a mother and son who invited Jaz to play with their newly opened LEGO set. For two years Harnal’s family and Armentrout delivered gifts directly to the recipients’ homes.
“I’ll never forget this,” Armentrout said, “we went up to this one apartment, and there wasn’t much inside. But this woman [who lived there] had bought a Pepsi and a can of cookies and had refreshments for us.” She cried as they carried in her gifts, which included a microwave. “This person, who had so little, had so much class as to give us something to thank us,” Armentrout added. “And it meant so much to that family. That’s why I do this.”
Crafting the paper ornaments for the Angel Tree began as a “homegrown operation” after Thanksgiving dinner, in which Harnal and his family cut paper into shapes such as sleighs, balls, hearts and snowmen, then handwrote the gift requests from Safe Harbor. Several years ago, they found an assembly crew at L.C. Bird High School when the Key Club reached out for an opportunity to volunteer. The collaboration stuck, and Harnal and his wife return each year to speak to roughly 30 students about Safe Harbor’s mission and services while they create the ornaments by hand.
“Something will inspire them to ask a question,” Debra Harnal said. “It was really touching to me to hear them get quiet and then hear their conversations, like, ‘Wow, this person just wants socks?’”
These gift requests are a reminder that the holidays can be a very difficult time for families experiencing domestic violence. The Angel Tree not only brings awareness to these families, but gives the community a specific way to support them.
Dominion employees had previously organized their own small, segmented charity efforts during the holiday season, but the Angel Tree began to draw in more participants as it became a visible tradition. Before long, the donation drives started to average $1,500 in cash, gift cards and presents each year. Dominion began putting up the tree a week before Thanksgiving so employees could add the gift requests to their Black Friday shopping lists. A team of engineers are responsible for putting up and taking down the tree at Harnal and Armentrout’s request, and they’ve turned the annual activity into a challenge.
“They all have the best plan,” fellow engineer Ida O’Connell said.
O’Connell has been part of the Innsbrook Angel Tree effort since 2011, but she first helped with the presents as an intern. She described an experience she had as a recovery specialist on a social work team in Ramsey County, Minnesota. She worked with people of all ages impacted by mental health and substance use issues, and some also experienced domestic violence.
“I just remember all the people I had met when we’re doing this,” O’Connell said about the Angel Tree. “The first thing people forget when things get good is how it felt when it was bad. I feel like that’s really true.”
She thinks her coworkers are enthusiastic about the Angel Tree because Safe Harbor’s mission is so relatable.
“Everyone has a family, and every family has some sort of unhealthiness to it,” O’Connell said. “And you can imagine some extent of that unhealthiness happening to someone else, even if it doesn’t happen to you.”
O’Connell said she was impressed by her coworkers’ eagerness to support Safe Harbor’s families, even if they weren’t familiar with children’s clothing sizes or contemporary toys like My Life Dolls. Her experience buying gifts for her nieces and nephews helps her to “translate” and make the process easier for other (male) engineers, who want to be told exactly what to buy.
“The first things that went off the tree this year were Dr. Who toys,” O’Connell said. “I mean, what nerd doesn’t like Dr. Who?”
Some employees, like Armentrout, make a tradition of donating the same gifts each year.
“My man and I take the ornaments for coats,” she said. “Those are our presents to each other, because I don’t need anything for Christmas…I want the tree up before Black Friday because we can buy more coats.”
Slowly but surely, the Angel Tree has become a building-wide effort including not only engineers, but security and cafeteria staff. One employee advertised the drive on the company’s internal classifieds, and also coordinated to pick up gifts from employees at other Dominion locations. An anonymous giver dropped a $100 bill in the donation jar outside the cafeteria. Dominion employees trust each other, and their enthusiastic adoption of Safe Harbor through the Angel Tree fosters a continued sense of community.
Jodi Leonard, Safe Harbor’s director of development and communications, said the Angel Tree drive has evolved into a very intimate relationship between the givers and receivers, even though they remain anonymous to each other.
“Dominion’s efforts to make sure the gifts are so personal to the families, without having those individual personal relationships, is what makes their efforts so unique and special,” Leonard said. “They’re anticipating it now, and it’s giving them an easy way to help.”
Harnal, O’Connell and Armentrout each knew of a coworker who had gone above and beyond to give a meaningful gift to a person they would never meet.
“We’ve had that every year, someone who will go the extra mile,” Harnal said. He asks for the gift requests to be as specific as possible, because details like size and color not only make the gift shopping experience easier, but more personal. One employee searched relentlessly to honor a young man’s request for pants, and she even paid for expedited shipping in hopes of delivering them by Christmas.
“She was determined that she wanted to get this kid those pants in that size,” Armentrout recalled. “I told her, ‘There are other ornaments, why don’t you pick something else?’ She said ‘No I’ve looked everywhere, I know this kid really needs these pants and I want this kid to have these pants.’”
Finances aren’t easy for many people, especially around Christmas, and yet the gift givers still go out of their way. Meanwhile, the list of requests continues to grow. Cheryl Hunt, Safe Harbor’s Director of Safe Houses, wrote in a thank-you note to Dominion employees that their gifts brought tears of joy to the children who spent Christmas at the emergency shelter.
“For some of the children, without the gifts you all donate their Christmas would be very lean and the parents would have additional stress to manage,” Hunt wrote.
One client thanked the employees for their kindness and generosity at a time when she experienced significant trauma and pain. A note from a mother read, “It’s been a hard year for me and I’m just so glad it had a great and amazing ending. Seeing my son opening up his gifts was the best gift I could receive. Thank you for that.” One family said they would not have had Christmas if it weren’t for the Angel Tree and the employees of Dominion.
“I get really cheesy about it, but people are amazing,” O’Connell said. “Someone put a car seat and wrote, ‘To a mom, from a mom.’ I know it’s just stuff really, but people feel connected to it even without seeing the person.”
Harnal even encountered unexpected generosity in the checkout line at Target, where two shoppers asked about the cause and donated four gift cards to him on the spot.
“Someone asked me, ‘What made you start this?’ I have no clue,” Harnal said. “I don’t want to use project terms, but it’s been very successful…It surprises me, it reaffirms my faith in humanity.”
Armentrout said she enjoys seeing the generosity and sentiment represented by the presents piled under the tree. “It’s very blessing to see that all the geeks in the building come through.”