The Fernandina Beach News Leader interviews Dawn Grant on her nearly twentieth consecutive year of volunteering.
Joy to the Children is a nonprofit organization that has reached out across Nassau County Florida and brought Christmas to economically disadvantaged children.
FBNL: How long have you been volunteering with Joy to the Children?
Dawn Grant: Since it’s origination. myself and several others co-founded JOY 19 years ago in 1995.
FBNL: Why did you decide to become involved with Joy to the Children?
Dawn Grant: I was a Children’s Case Manager at Nassau County Mental Health Center (now Starting Point) when Mike Smith came to us looking to identify children which could use support. Mike Smith and several of his friends, who called themselves “The Orphans” because they were empty-nesters, widowed, or divorced, would celebrate the holidays together. In 1995 they decided that rather than spending money on each other at Christmas time, they would pool together their resources and help some children in need. I immediately joined the cause and was the person who identify the children who would be our guests at the party. We met regularly at our homes and started the adventure of becoming a non-profit 501c3. We wanted to offer a party specifically on Christmas Day to children who would wake up Christmas morning to a ‘normal’ day, a day that would be like all the others due to their economic disadvantage. Local restaurants donated food for the party, and the children got to see Santa who brought them gifts of clothes and toys.
We have grown over the 19 years and for a few years now I have been the only ‘original’ still on the board. I am in my second year as President, a position I had held several years ago as well.
As one can image we have grown over the years. Our holiday feast is still donated by local restaurants; and there is entertainment which includes live music, caroling, face painting, crafts, pirate invasion, puppeteer, clowns, and a visit from Santa and Mrs. Claus. The children receive clothing, a backpack, school supplies, toiletries, books, bedding, and, of course, toys… all purchased specifically for each child based on their age, gender, size, interests, and hobbies.
FBNL: What is the best part about being involved with Joy to the Children?
Dawn Grant: JOY is like a family member to me, it has been wonderful to watch it grow from inception to the age of 19. It is so much a part of my life that most of it is on auto-pilot for me and my kids, who have only known life with JOY. JOY has been there through all the phases of my adult life: pre-kids, marriage, pregnancies, post-partum, divorce, single parenting, and entrepreneurship. There is not one single part of JOY that I could say is the best part, other than the underlying beauty of love and giving. JOY has truly brought me great joy every year, from beginning to end.
FBNL: What is the most challenging part of being involved with Joy to the Children?
Dawn Grant: Sometimes it is challenging juggling my schedule and being sure to get things done in a timely manner especially since I am a single parent and my work as a Mental Trainer has me working with clients abroad and traveling to sporting events. But, otherwise, most of the tasks are second nature to me by this point.
FBNL: Do you have a particularly poignant memory you can share from the Christmas Day Joy to the Children Celebration?
Dawn Grant: The most special moments to me are always when I see a glimmer of hope in a child’s eye. There is a look they get on their face when there is something they’ve wanted or needed but have been unable to afford. For most of these children “the look” comes when they open a pair of shoes, or their very own pillow and blanket. I have seen children cry because they unwrapped a present to see a jacket in their favorite color. And there is nothing like seeing a mom filled with appreciation because JOY provided for her children in a way she wished she could have.
FBNL: What would you like people to know about Joy to the Children that they don’t already know?
Dawn Grant: JOY is a wonderful experience for both the children, and for volunteers. We regularly come across residence of Nassau County who are completely unfamiliar with JOY. Getting the word out in general is what we would appreciate. Because we are a non-profit with no paid staff or overhead we don’t spend money on advertising or publicity. We rely on our volunteers to raise awareness and to make announcements on our Facebook page: joytothechildrennassau
FBNL: How many volunteers do you have?
Dawn Grant: We have several hundred volunteers which assist JOY in every step of the production. Volunteers coordinate logistics, shop, wrap presents and decorate for the party. 50+ volunteers come on Christmas Day to help at the party; some work in the kitchen and some we call Family Angels as they are at service to a family for the day. Our board members are volunteers as well. There is a pleasant and unexpected surprise regarding our volunteers, as we never planned that there would be just as much joy experienced by the volunteers as there is for the children. There are so many people who feel sad or alone on the holidays; they, themselves, have a hard time getting through the day, but JOY offers them a wonderful and rewarding experience as well.
FBNL: How long does it take to put this event together?
Dawn Grant: Our board members meet monthly throughout the year until October when we begin to meet biweekly. We go into full swing with planning and prepping from October till December 25th. With peak volunteer opportunities at the Toy Shopping Event (Sun 12/7), Clothing Shopping Event (Sun 12/14), Gift Transport (Fri 12/19), Wrapping Party (Sat 12/20), Food Transport (Wed 12/24), and Christmas Day (Thur 12/25).
FBNL: How many families were served last year? How many children?
Dawn Grant: Our children live in Nassau County and are identified by professionals from either our elementary schools or from support organizations. Last year we served our largest number of families and children, 58 families/190 children. We typically average around 50 families/160 children. This year we are aiming to serve about 160 children.
FBNL: How can the community help Joy to the Children?
Dawn Grant: JOY would benefit from any opportunity which would spread the word about JOY and what we do to help the children in need of Nassau County. People of the community can donate to JOY and know that ALL their money is going straight to helping local children. To volunteer one can submit their information to us on this webpage: www.joytothechildren.org/volunteers, and donations can be made on our website or mailed to PO Box 16404, Fernandina Beach, Florida 32035
FBNL: Anything you’d like to add?
Dawn Grant: Several years ago we decided to make a larger impact on some of these economically disadvantaged children. We wanted to give them an opportunity to turn their lives around, so we started offering college scholarships to FSCJ. JOY identifies children who may be experiencing hardship but who continually rise above it. Children who work to support their family while attending school; or who go to school and also care for grandparents or siblings while their parents work multiple jobs. We are proud to offer about 4 scholarships a year to these remarkable children.
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