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Published: 12/25/2004

Family always finds the perfect present

BY ROBIN ERB
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Joni Meyer-Crothers, left, accepts a hug from Tabatha Thomas as daughter Janet, 4, enjoys one of her gifts. Mrs. Meyer-Crothers and her family give the party to honor her late mother. Joni Meyer-Crothers, left, accepts a hug from Tabatha Thomas as daughter Janet, 4, enjoys one of her gifts. Mrs. Meyer-Crothers and her family give the party to honor her late mother.
MORRISON / BLADE PHOTO Enlarge
Jamie Crothers awaits gifts to be stacked as his wife Joni and their daughter Lara ferry wrapped parcels to the truck. Jamie Crothers awaits gifts to be stacked as his wife Joni and their daughter Lara ferry wrapped parcels to the truck.
MORRISON / BLADE PHOTO Enlarge
Dominique Guerrero, 7, is all smiles as a Santa's assistant rolls out her new bicycle at Friday's Christmas party. Dominique Guerrero, 7, is all smiles as a Santa's assistant rolls out her new bicycle at Friday's Christmas party.
MORRISON / BLADE PHOTO Enlarge

The memory of Joan Meyer this year filled a Sylvania garage - floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall.

Packed into a U-Haul on Thursday, it was parceled out into more than a dozen hulking boxes, and stuffed into 27 stockings hung at the Bayside Boardwalk rental hall in Oregon.

And yesterday, Joan Meyer's presence - though she died more than six years ago - permeated a surprise Christmas party of sorts for needy families at the Oregon rental hall.

"This is so neat," said Jessica Stoner, a 32-year-old mother of three. "Everybody around Christmas gets so wrapped up in gifts and shopping and the competition [with gift-giving.] But this year, somebody I don't even know cared to find out what my kids wanted, and even threw this party. It's so personal. It's magical, really."

With the stereo system cranking out Christmas tunes in the background, in just more than two hours, cookies were decorated, lunch was offered, and the most famous North Pole resident, himself, appeared.

Cameras flashed. Children squealed.

Call it Christmas, consolidated.

"It's amazing," said Ms. Stoner, who like most parents at the party had never heard about Joan's Miracle Network, a nonprofit set up in the name of Mrs. Meyer, who was a supervisor at the housing department of the Genoa Care Center. Every year, the parties are thrown in her name.

Mrs. Meyer died in her Genoa living room in 1998 of kidney failure. She was surrounded by her family, and as her daughter, Joni, remembers it, she said simply that "It's time now," told each that she loved them, and died quietly.

They buried her with her Bible days later. In her memory that Christmas, Joni Meyer-Crothers, and son-in-law, Jamie Crothers, "adopted" a family through the Salvation Army and purchased several gifts.

It grew from there.

Daughter Ciera Lemke, 17, still remembers that first Christmas delivering gifts with her parents to strangers' living rooms.

"I remember going to this house and their beds were on the floor because they didn't have real beds and there was, like, this plastic tarp over [a broken] window, and this girl opens this gift and it's socks. I mean, they were socks, and she turns to her mom and she's, like, 'Socks! Mom, just what I wanted.'●

"And it wasn't like she was saying that. She really meant it, and I thought 'Socks? What's so big about socks?'●"

But it didn't take long to realize just how needy some people are whether it's because they've lost a job or they've suffered a disability or illness.

The family began obtaining names from caseworkers at the East Toledo Family Center, and these days, Ciera doesn't mind sharing her parents at Christmas.

"Just look at how happy these kids are," she said. "Christmas is about Jesus and his gift to us and about us giving to others."

The enthusiasm has proved contagious.

The first year, Bayside hall owner Terry Hymore rented the facility to the Meyer-Crothers family. It was the last time he accepted their money.

This year, he purchased several beds for some of the children, donated the cookies for decorating, and directed his staff to make everyone dinner.

There have been others.

Someone bought three baby cribs. Another turned over a $2,000 cash donation.

And yesterday, when an unexpected guest, an 8-year-old step-sibling, arrived but wasn't on the guest list, a hall employee pulled together pocket money from several people, drove to a nearby store, and purchased several gifts. They were wrapped and ready within minutes.

In all, the Meyer-Crothers family, their relatives and friends, and members of Westgate Chapel, where they go to church, pulled together $18,000 that purchased 1,200 bikes, games, stereo systems, stuffed animals, beds, and cribs.

Each guest also was handed a Bible and stuffed stocking at the party.

"Someone will say, 'I want to help but I can only give $5,'●" Ms. Meyer said. "But hey, that's a package of batteries. Do you know how many batteries we go through?"

About $200 worth, she said.

Of course, all this means massive organization; so at the Crothers' modest ranch home in Sylvania for the last few months, it has been Santa meets small business.

Ms. Crothers, who runs her own medical transcription service, long ago began smoothing out the inevitable wrinkles of such a large operation. Now, filed in a desktop adorned with pictures of her mother are Christmas lists, addresses, lists of toys, stores, and prices.

"Go ahead and ask her: She can tell you about every toy aisle in the city," Mr. Crothers laughed.

Consider the day-after-Thanksgiving sales. For most shoppers, it's chaos. For the Crothers, it's tactical.

Eleven-year-old daughter, Lara Lemke, darts down the packed store aisles with the target in mind.

"It's easier if my Mom stands with the cart and I grab the toys," she said, laughing as she added: "It can get dangerous out there. People are not very happy that day."

This year, they were able to take care of much of their list in three carloads. More than two dozen people a week later gathered in the basement of Westgate Chapel, using up several dozen rolls of wrapping paper.

All this ended yesterday after Santa handed out bikes, video games, and portable stereos, while staff and volunteers quietly pulled out the otherwise nondescript brown cardboard boxes that had lined the wall.

Inside were the hundreds of gifts for the children, and children immediately disappeared in a flurry of ripped Christmas wrap.

In a corner, Jerry Baker, a 29-year-old, unemployed father, wept softly. His two children ripped through a stack of dolls and electronic baby games and other toys.

His daughter hadn't been on the invitation list, yet there were gifts for her that the hall employee had purchased just an hour earlier.

"This is just such a blessing," he said. "I hope next year we can contribute back to them."

Contact Robin Erb at:

robinerb@theblade.com

or 419-724-6133.



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