By Pat Launer
How often, when you give generously at the holidays, do you actually get to meet the recipients of your charity? How about sitting down to lunch with them?
Louis and Tanya McKay, founders of Dance Hearts/Bells of Freedom, are committed to making that kind of meaningful experience happen.
For years, they’ve been actively supporting military families in need. They come from a military heritage: her father was in the Navy; his father was a Marine and his brother was in the Army.
But their personal commitment started when their four kids were quite young.
“We asked what they wanted for Christmas,” says Louis, founder/owner of the award-winning Del Mar dance studio, North County Dance Arts. “They said, ‘We don’t really need anything. So I said, ‘Okay, then, each of you pick one present to receive, and the rest goes to children less fortunate than you.’ And they were fine with that.”
Louis’ sister worked for Section 8, which provides rental housing assistance to low-income households.
“I asked if she had any families that might need help,” says Louis. “‘Give us a few,’ I said, ‘and we’ll take care of them for the holidays.’ She gave us the details on two families, the number of kids and their ages.
“Then, we made a plan. One night, she’d take the family out in her car to see the neighborhood lights and decorations, and she’d leave their key under the mat for us. We’d go in, put up a small Christmas tree, leave gifts, toys and gift cards under it, fill up the fridge with food, and take off. We set our own guideline of $100 per child.
“We left the house, parked down the block a little, and heard them screaming and yelling with joy. It was very rewarding — but anonymous.
This went on for about three years. After the 9/11 attack, there were military families in their church who were in need. The church developed a program to ‘adopt’ a family.
“But still,” says Louis, “ we didn’t meet the families we helped.”
“After the church stopped their program, we decided to start our own,” says Tanya, who met her husband of 25 years when she taught dance at one of his earlier studios. (Louis has opened six studios over the past 38 years, after he finished his seven-year stint on the road with Debbie Reynolds, as her lead singer/dancer/choreographer).
“We got in touch with the Chaplain on the base,” Tanya continues, “to recommend some families. We put up fliers at the dance studio, with pull-tabs for certain gifts. It was popular from the beginning. People immediately wanted to be part of it. “
Growing an Idea
The McKays started with six families.
“And,” says Tanya,” people wanted to deliver the gifts with us.”
As the effort got bigger, year by year, they decided to form a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, Dance Hearts. Bells of Freedom is one program under the umbrella organization.
They worked with the FROs (Family Readiness Officers) who provide resources and support for military families. They chose the Amphibious Assault and Combat Logistics battalions at Camp Pendleton — “two of the most deployed,” says Louis. “they’re like infantry.”
“The families who were nominated by the FROs were mostly young,” says Tanya, “maybe 18-23 years old, with one to three young kids, and they couldn’t make ends meet. That’s still the case.”
And thus was born “The Big Thank You,” where several donated UPS 16-wheel semis and a car and motorcycle brigade caravan up to Pendleton every December, and each family sponsor gets to meet the family, have lunch with them, and distribute the gifts to their family directly. This year, The Big Thank You is December 3.
Even though they now serve 100 families (their max capacity), Louis still calls every one of them to welcome them to the program.
“At first, many of them said ‘No, thank you,’” Louis reports. “They said, ‘I don’t need your charity.’ When I explained that this is just a ‘Big Thank You,’ to express appreciation for their service, they were amazed, saying, over and over, ‘Nobody ever does anything like this for us.’ Some of them cry.
The McKays proudly report that 100 percent of all donations to families goes to the family. Folks can also donate online to the general fund, for programs Dance Hearts operates all year long: providing help as needed for military families: new marriage, sick baby, etc., as well as Cars for Kids and Meal Baskets programs. Ninety-eight percent of general fund donations go to the troops; the other 2 percent goes to website and office support. The McKays take nothing for themselves. This is a labor of love.
The amount of support money required is about $350 for a family of three, with $100 added for each additional child. While the children get gifts, the parents get a $150 gift certificate.
“You should see what they ask for on their Wish List,” says Louis. “Just the very basics: diapers and wipes. We often have to push them, and then they ask for bikes and strollers and toys.”
“From the very beginning,” says Tanya,” these families inspired us. We knew what it was like to have tough times. We had some ourselves. People would bring us food, and leave birthday gifts for the kids. When we started having a little extra cash, we decided we’d pay back and give to others.”
On the day of The Big Thanks, all the families and sponsors and volunteers are given a hot lunch. Gifts are distributed, and there’s a raffle for nights out (donated theater tickets, dinner, hotel, for example). Santa is there, too, in the person of Gary Klunkle, who really does look like ole St. Nick.
“He’s the real deal,” says Tanya, “big bushy beard, crystal blue eyes. The eyes are why we picked him.”
It’s a ton of work for the McKays to organize the massive event.
“I only make 100 phonecalls,” Louis confesses.
“I’m the one who starts crying in July, thinking of all the logistical headaches ahead,” quips Tanya. ”Though the work beforehand and the coordination are maddening, I really enjoy working with the families, and seeing the bond, the connection, made between the families and the sponsors. Some even stay in touch long after the event. Some families say they were so overwhelmed by the generosity, they gave some of the gifts to other families. The more people we can help, the better.”
“The reward,” says Louis, “is seeing the families and the faces of the kids, and giving people an avenue to give, and getting to see the results and the recipients. We’re the only organization that does this.
“The greatest gift in life is to give,” Louis concludes. “And when you give, your children grow up giving. It makes all the time and effort worth it. All these Marines want is to be appreciated. And that’s our job. When they’re told and shown that they’re appreciated, it makes a whole difference in their lives.”
You can donate to Bells of Freedom or adopt a family at bellsoffreedom.org.
Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.
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