In the lobby of our headquarters in Chantilly, Virginia, the board games arrived one, two, sometimes three at a time. They were stacked neatly on the black tablecloth, little Lego pieces of compassion bound for tiny hands and big smiles.
For eight days, they grew higher and higher, absently tended to by anyone waiting for the nearby elevator. A cardboard cutout of Charlie Brown – drawn carefully by a creative part-time elf and full-time marketing specialist – and his iconic droopy Christmas tree stood watch at the back of the table. Day by day, the stack rose higher until it topped Chuck’s trademark stripe, then his nose then his mostly hairless head.
For one December week and a day at NJVC, charity was a game – or 201 of them, to be exact – and our philanthropic partner was winning big.
“We are always humbled by the generosity of our staff,” NJVC president Chris Andersen said. “No matter what we ask or on what timetable, they always give above and beyond. This was no exception.”
The donations were bound for Wednesday night’s Tiny Heroes Winter Wonderland, hosted by the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), which provides support for the families of fallen service members, and Yellow Ribbons United (YRU), which supports members of the military family of all situations.
In its second year, Tiny Heroes recognizes our nation’s smallest who have made the greatest sacrifice, children who lost a loved one who served in our country’s armed forces.
The event, held at the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City, just outside Washington, D.C., brought a night of joy for children who may have lost a caregiver, but, through the work of TAPS and YRU, have gained a family of supporting, caring individuals, many of whom have suffered a loss themselves.
Executive Assistance: NJVC President Chris Andersen (left) and Chief Revenue Officer Jeff Bongianino (right) help a tiny hero pick a board game.
“We are so proud to partner with an organization like TAPS,” Andersen said. “We are committed to the needs of service members, whether at home or abroad, and there is no greater need than caring for the families of those who aren’t fortunate enough to come home. It's a privilege to be able to help."
On this night, TAPS’ army of elves transformed a series of ballrooms into Santa's dream workshop. Red gel lights cast a holiday hue over the main ballroom while kid-sized candy canes and inflatable ice cream cones framed snow-covered doorways to activity areas.
Even the haute cuisine of the Ritz-Carlton was pizza, macaroni and cheese and chicken fingers, and for a hotel familiar to the elite of the world, the only foreign dignitaries to be found were Queen Elsa and Princess Anna of Arendelle and their royal snowman, Olaf.
Throughout the room, the smiles of 120 children lit up the night like twinkling Christmas lights.
The night had a cast of speakers befitting a decidedly more black tie event, the distinctly Washington triumvirate of politics, military and football: former NFL star Derrick Dockery, co-founder of Yellow Ribbons United, along with his wife, Emma; Iowa Senator Joni Ernst; Texas Representative Will Hurd; two Lieutenant Generals; and TAPS founder and recent Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Bonnie Carroll. Yet the biggest star seemed to be the magician. Or the clown with balloon animals. Or the game station. Or Olaf.
For three hours, children wandered through the winter wonderland, playing games, decorating cookies, selecting presents from Toys for Tots' toy room, and listening to children’s stories read by high-ranking generals.
It was a night for the kids, and like the oversized teddy bear or enormous Connect Four game, all others – from staff to volunteers to professional athletes – were just supporting elements to make the night brighter for the children.
They beamed and smiled and laughed and, for one night, celebrated seemingly without reservation, likely remembering what was lost, but enjoying so much what still remained.
"It was so rewarding just to share the experience with these families and play a role in the evening," said NJVC's Sharon Kiang, who manages the partnership with TAPS. "To make the holidays a little brighter for the kids is an honor."
Through the generosity of TAPS and YRU, what began with small acts of kindness day by day ended with big smiles, many for what they’d received, many more for what they’d been able to give. And as the children left and the donated games began to disappear with families one, two, sometimes three at a time, the tiniest of heroes were the happiest of all.
For more information or to donate, please visit TAPS and Yellow Ribbons United.
NJVCares for TAPS:
(L to R) Ray Holloman, Scott Pospichel, Lizzie Reed, Chris Andersen, Mike Carr, Sharon Kiang, Jeff Bongianino, John Laskar, Merinda Satcher-Grant, Charles Emory.