Mitzvah Day draws interfaith volunteers in southwest Detroit

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit —  Each year, Mitzvah Day has more helping hands for its charity effort on Christmas morning than the last. 

Starting in 1988 with only 22 kids, Jimmy Tuman started and operated Jimmy's Kids out of his living room in hopes of giving back to families in need during the holidays. Each year, Tuman works with battered women's shelters, churches, nonprofits and programs to find families in southwest Detroit that need help giving their kids a Christmas, filling a truck with gifts for each family.

Alex Aviles, of Southwest Detroit, and his three sons Tony, 6, Noah, 7, and Aron, 8, get a surprise visit and free toys from Jimmy's Kids volunteer Adrienne Lenhoff on Christmas Day.

In its 31st year, more than 2,000 volunteers took part in the wrapping and distribution of gifts Wednesday morning for 400 families in need, 100 more than last year.

"I'm always surprised on Christmas that people would give up their morning, a family day, to come do this year after year," said Tuman, 78. "The idea of multifaiths coming together is really powerful at this time of our history because there's so much anger and hate out there. I see it all the time in my work with teen suicide."

Four-year-old Liam Gonzalez of Southwest Detroit accepts the gift of a giant teddy bear from Jimmy's Kids, delivered by Jewish volunteers Adrienne Lenhoff and Jack Cohen on Christmas Day.

"This gives people a chance to find that space where there are caring people and after seeing these families, it makes their life a little better to be reminded of how good they have it," Tuman said.

Mitzvah Day has become a tradition for Howard Lazar of Farmington Hills and his family, who help deliver presents through the nonprofit Jimmy’s Kids, which receives requests from schools, hospitals, churches, neighborhood associations and others.

But this year didn't go as smoothly as others, he said. 

The year-long effort was halted three weeks ago when they lost 6,000 pounds of toys Tuman had collected. The toys had been housed in a Madison Heights facility, and when Tuman went to go retrieve them, the facility was covered in hazardous silica dust, which can cause lung disease and lung cancer.

"We couldn't use them because of the danger and the lockers were contaminated up until the end of November," he said. "They sanded the floors in front of the lockers, and all the dust from the sanding got in through an 18-inch opening and all the lockers were immersed in the dust and we had no idea what it was.

"Despite all the challenges we have in our country today, there are some great, great people that came to the rescue" by donating gifts, he said.

Volunteers Carolyn Fox, left, and her daughter Morgan Berg, both of Farmington Hills carry bags filled with Christmas toys from Jimmy's Kids to deliver to children in Southwest Detroit on Christmas Day.

Long considered the largest volunteering opportunity for the Jewish community in southeast Michigan, Mitzvah Day often draws repeat visitors who flock to the partner sites year after year.

Among those helping Wednesday was Matt Strait, 29, of Royal Oak, who unloaded and distributed gift bags from the truck to volunteers. He said he started making the runs to deliver gifts in 2013 and has been friends with Tuman since his undergraduate days at Michigan State University.

"These people are just wonderful and it makes all the difference," said Strait. "Walking up to the door is the best part. It's often a surprise and to be able to deliver to a family that might not otherwise expect to have gifts coming on Christmas because they're in need, there's nothing like it. It's hard work but you immediately realize it's worth it. Good for the heart, the soul, good for the world."

Larisa Ponce, 8, and her father Elvin Ponce get a surprise visit and free toys from Jimmy's Kids volunteers Adrienne Lenhoff and Jack Cohen on Christmas Day.

That event drew many Muslim volunteers, who participate as part of their annual Days of Ihsan initiative to give back during the holiday season.

Ali Bazzi, who has volunteered at Mitzvah Day for the past four years, brought his friend, Zeinab Alsheraa, to join him for the humbling effort.

"I don't really celebrate Christmas, but I'm all for the holiday and especially for the thought of giving," said Alsheraa, who works with Bazzi at Zaman International in Inkster. "I used to work every Christmas morning at the hospital and ever since I left that job, I always feel like I have to do something on this day, and what better way than to give back to children?"

Twitter: @SarahRahal_