Debbie Simmons earns her living as a CPA in Brentwood. But evenings, weekends and every other spare minute during the holidays and many other free moments during the year find Simmons shopping for bargain toys and wrapping paper, scanning the shelves or standing in checkout lines at Toys 'R' Us, Target, the 99 Cents Only store and Party World. She's buying Power Rangers and Barbie dolls a dozen at a time and picking up donated wrapping paper 50 rolls at a clip.
What's the deal? A giant neighborhood holiday party? Chanukah gifts for a very extended family? Not exactly, says Simmons. A single native New Yorker, she, in fact, has 60 needy families in Torrance and the surrounding South Bay area for whom she provides gifts, but they're not relatives; they're strangers who have become friends through her acts of charity.
Simmons also has become a well-known presence among some local merchants. "At Toys 'R' Us I'm kind of a celebrity," she admits. No wonder. It's unlikely the store gets many customers who buy 600 gifts every year.
This Sunday, Simmons will expand her gift-giving idea to a new level when the Chabad Jewish Community Center in Redondo Beach opens the doors of its new center on Vail Avenue for a wrapping party from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. In addition to gifts that Simmons has purchased with donations from her clients, friends and associates, hundreds of other gifts are also expected to be on hand. Most will go to needy families selected by such organizations as the Torrance Children's Center and Head Start in Carson. The Redondo Beach Chabad's rabbi, Yossi Mintz, says his organization plans to deliver other gifts to children at local hospitals during the holidays.
For Simmons, the rewards she gets from the project outweigh the year-round effort that goes into putting the project together. "I consider myself very fortunate," she says. "I have an education; I'm independent. I have a house, a family, a good job. It brings me a great sense of fulfillment to know I'm helping someone else."
Simmons has received hundreds of thank-you letters since she began the project in 1994 with her sister, Caryle Balaban, after reading a story in a local paper about an "adopt-a-child" holiday gift-giving program. Each sister decided to adopt a family to buy presents for, and the project grew from there.
Last year, Simmons, who is Jewish, approached Mintz and asked if he knew of Jewish families in need, and the rabbi obliged with some names. But Simmons says the program is basically nondenominational; the aim is simply to make needy children and their parents, who are often single moms, feel special.
More than half the Torrance Children's Center's 130 culturally diverse families fell into that "in need" category last year, according to center secretary Betty Bruey, who helps select families for "adoption."
"A lot of our families live with relatives because they can't afford to pay rent," Bruey explained. Simmons "has been such a Santa Claus to these families," she added. "I've had mothers coming here crying because they're so grateful for the help."
Each year, Bruey passes along the thank-you cards to Simmons. Some come with pictures of children she has helped but never met. They're her gifts, Simmons says, and they keep giving all year long.
To send a tax-deductible donation to Simmons' "adopt-a-family" gift-giving project, forward a check to Chabad Jewish Community Center, 1635 Aviation Blvd., Redondo Beach, CA 90278. And don't forget to come to 2108 Vail Ave. to wrap presents on Sunday. For more information, call (310) 372-6879.
To find out how to adopt a family in the South Bay, e-mail Debbie Simmons at email@example.com, or contact Torrance Children's Center at (310) 787-3010 or the Volunteer Center in Torrance at (310) 212-5009; both can connect donors with needy families.