A wrapping party Thursday night ensured hundreds of presents would be ready for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Cleveland’s Mel Bedwell Christmas Extravaganza set for Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.
Blythe Unit director Melissa Scannapiego invited children and families across the city to join the festivities.
“What we have found is there are different parties around Cleveland. We want this to be an experience,” Scannapiego said. “We don’t want to just give them a toy. We don’t want to just feed them. We don’t want to just do the regular ‘get them in, get them out’ kind of thing.”
The party has grown since its humble beginnings at the Powers Unit on Lay Street. According to Mel Bedwell’s daughter, Shannon, the party initially attracted 200 children. The Elks Lodge, of which Mel was a member, sponsored the event.
Shannon said the event was right up her father’s alley. He loved Christmas, with its gifts, celebrations and goodwill. The annual Powers Unit party was a highlight of the holiday season for him.
“My father passed away in ’98. The following year the Elks Lodge decided [to go a different direction],” Shannon said. “A member of the Elks Lodge, and a close friend of my father, said we should do it anyway and call it the Mel Bedwell Christmas Party.”
Shannon and her sister, Kelly Williams, contacted family, friends and former business partners of their father’s the first year and every year since. The community has since gathered around the event every year to make it a success. The crowds have grown from 200 children to over 1,000 children, teens and adults.
Scannapiego said the attendees begin lining up outside of the Family Support Center on Blythe Avenue at 3 p.m. the day of the event. Recent years found the line wrapping around the neighborhood as the event drew closer. Once the clock hits 5 p.m., the doors are opened.
The large numbers are always welcomed with a smile.
“In the community we are located in, there is a great need. Sometimes the need is not for a Christmas present, it is for the experience we talked about,” Scannapiego said. “It is local, so they can walk to and from the party, but we also have people from outside the neighborhood.”
Volunteers and the BGCC staff work to transform the Family Resource Agency into a winter wonderland. Wrapping paper, Christmas lights, oversized paper candy creations and more are used to block out TVs and other devices not normally found in the North Pole.
Everyone starts out in the gym. A DJ spins music while attendees participate in crazy games and interact with life-size Christmas characters like Rudolph and Frosty. Food will be available, like the 3,000 wings donated by head sponsor Buffalo Wild Wings. The restaurant also gave plates, wet naps, sauces and paper crowns for the children.
Scannapiego described Buffalo Wild Wings and other sponsors’ involvement in the event as crucial.
“We could not do it without them,” Scannapiego said. “[Our two biggest sponsors are] the letters the Bedwells send out to local business leaders and Buffalo Wild Wings.”
Additional sponsors include McDonald’s and additional anonymous donations from community residents.
Food, games, music and dancing are followed by presents. Children are called by age groups to visit either the Elf Room or Santa Claus. The Elf Room lives up to its name with cheerful, hyper and downright silly elves causing a ruckus as children work on crafts. There is also the opportunity for face painting and hair creations.
Shannon said she and Kelly often end up in the Winter Wonderland room with Santa.
“The joy on their face when they have that present is really, really heartwarming and humbling,” Shannon said. “We have so much and they have so little. It makes you appreciate what you’ve got.”
She said the looks on the children’s faces is what keeps her and Kelly coming back.
“[Melissa’s] love for the kids and our love for our dad and wanting to continue this for these kids is what keeps driving us,” Shannon said.