- The Washington Times - Monday, December 22, 2003

What’s worse for children than not having something for Christmas? Gwendolyn Benson-Walker, of Petworth in Northwest, asks the question because she knows firsthand. She “lived that life” with four siblings, growing up “poor, living in homes, without a mother or father sometimes.” Many years there was no tree, let alone presents.

“Even one toy would have helped,” said the 57-year-old Philadelphia native who is now the proud parent of three children and has eight grandchildren.

So, each year for the past 13 years, Ms. Benson-Walker has made it her business to ensure that 400 disadvantaged D.C. children receive at least one toy and one piece of warm clothing for Christmas.

“When you are young, you don’t understand that you didn’t get a present because you were not naughty or not a good person, but there was just no money,” she said.

Yesterday, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton presented a gift — a Waterford crystal replica of the Capitol complex with Senate and House offices — to the “children’s volunteer extraordinaire” during her annual “Christmas Party on the Hill” for city children.

“She gives new meaning to the term ‘unsung hero,’” the D.C. Democrat said. “All that efficiency and all that love in one package called Gwen Benson-Walker is for the kids to have a lot.”

Ms. Benson-Walker, a former Norton staffer, has spearheaded the donations of food and toys for the children — invited from community-service organizations, including Sister of Mine, Covenant House and the Edward Mazique Day Care Center — who attend the Norton holiday festivities.

“I don’t think it’s fair that any child goes through Christmas without at least one toy,” Ms. Benson-Walker said. “I don’t care what their parents did or didn’t do throughout the year. It takes the whole community to raise the children, and we are all responsible for every child in our community.”

Ms. Benson-Walker shops for the children’s sweaters, hats, gloves and, of course, toys after collecting donations from businesses, private citizens and the Marine Corps’ Toys for Tots program in conjunction with Covenant House.

“That’s the fun part. I shop till I drop,” she said. With proceeds left over from the previous year, she starts shopping in October, “when the real sales are.”

Mrs. Norton noted that Ms. Benson-Walker is famous for her efficiency, which the latter acknowledges when discussing her last-minute inventory count to ensure that there is enough for everyone.

“I’m the go-to person,” Ms. Benson-Walker said. “They say if you want something done, get a busy person to do it. I’m very efficient because I only like to do things one time.”

This secret Santa not only purchases age-appropriate gifts for children, but she also ensures that they are the current year’s toy craze, Mrs. Norton said. This year, they had more toddlers to accommodate with the record $13,000 raised.

“Then she stands there, looks the child in the face and chooses the gift to give to Santa, who then gives [it] to the child,” Mrs. Norton said, “and they get more than one.”

After accomplishing her Santa duties, Mrs. Benson-Walker goes home, Mrs. Norton said, because “she’s not anybody who stands by waiting to be thanked.” Nonetheless, appropriate thanks were given and appropriately appreciated.

Hey, sometimes you give and then you get.

“This year’s party carries special meaning because so many of our kids lack the basics, including loving parents with jobs,” Mrs. Norton said.

The party this year also carried significant meaning because it will be Ms. Benson-Walker’s “last big push.” A personal trainer, she and her husband, Joseph Lovece, are moving to Daytona, Fla., “for a change in environment.” Whether that’s a change in political environment, she didn’t say.

No doubt wherever she lives, Gwendolyn Benson-Walker will ensure that fewer children have a toyless Christmas.

“I can’t stand it when I think a child may not get something, which is why I keep doing what I’m doing wherever I go,” she said.

Note, dear readers, there’s still time to donate to local charities such as Tots for Toys and make one child (outside your own home) happy this holiday season.

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