Maryland couple throw annual surprise party for their charity ministry

Petula Dvorak
Columnist December 28, 2013

She thought she had dressed perfectly for a holiday party: silver high heels, slim pants and a hot-pink angora sweater.

The party was thrown by a corporate executive and his wife, a former model, and Cynthia Fikes did seem to fit right in as she nibbled on the food, amid the gold ribbon and green garland decorations in the grand house, in a gated community in Upper Marlboro.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

But minutes later, she found herself in the basement, pushing boxes, lugging coats, working until her feet hurt.

“If I had known, I would’ve worn flats,” said Fikes, clearly one of the first-timers at the Hutchinson family’s annual holiday party.

I was like her, too, my first time.

A few years back, when a nice family from school invited my family to its holiday party, I wore something sparkly and heels that were spiky. Then I found myself on an assembly line slapping mayo, mustard and ham sandwiches together.

That’s how the Hutchinsons operate.

“Every year, about half of the guests don’t know what they’re in for,” said Louis Hutchinson, the dad. He’s also a vice president at Constellation Energy and, with his wife, Demetra Hutchinson, heads a virtual ministry that connects people in need with people who can give.

The Hutchinsons call it Restore Together. The cornerstone of the ministry — using technology to unite givers and receivers — is articulated in a book, “Restore Together,” and on a Web site, www.restoretogether.com. The Web site is where they link churches, community groups, activists, givers and the needy.

The holiday party is one of the Hutchinsons’ main events. Each year, they invite about 100 people to their home. And somewhere between the arugula salad and the apple-cranberry pie, everyone is assigned tasks.

The dining room is made into the sandwich assembly line. Guests in a room with a big fireplace stuff lines of Scripture into the lunch bags. In the basement, others sort and label the hundreds of clothing items the guests were asked to donate.

That’s what happened Friday night.

The next day, many of the party guests went with the Hutchinsons to downtown Washington to give away the coats, hats, gloves and sandwiches that had been organized by the partygoers.

“I didn’t know about this the first time,” said Kristina Jenkins, 31, who was crawling around the basement on hands and knees Friday night, labeling winter boots, trying not to scuff her gold-sequin pumps. “Louis is my boss, and he invited me, and I thought it was nice that he asked me to bring a coat or hats or gloves. But I didn’t know I’d be doing work that night, too.”

Jenkins, who works in Constellation Energy’s sales department, decided to stick with the sparkly shoes this year even though she knew she’d be working that night.

The whole thing started with the Hutchinsons’ daughter, Naya.

“A few years ago, Naya came downstairs with her Christmas list. It was a $20,000 list, and we knew we were doing something wrong,” Louis Hutchinson said.

So they worked with Naya on coming up with a plan to make the season about giving.

For three years now, Naya has spearheaded a coat drive, first at her middle school, Friends Community School in College Park, and now as a freshman at Bullis School in Potomac, Md.

“The part I don’t like is all the organizing right before. It’s pretty stressful,” said Naya, 13.

But her favorite part?

That comes the next morning.

On Saturday, she, her little brother, Louis, and about a half-dozen young friends began giving out lunch bags at Franklin Square Park in Northwest Washington, which is a major gathering place for the city’s homeless.

The crowd, pushing carts and dragging blankets, swarmed when the Hutchinsons pulled up with their truckloads of lunch sacks and clothing. At least 100 people surged toward the collection of first-world castoffs: North Face, Columbia, Prada, Eddie Bauer.

“Please, please: Line up. Children first — we have to clothe the children first,” Louis Hutchinson boomed over the commotion.

David Salaya stood with his 4-year-old daughter, Anahai Cruz. They don’t have a home, he said. Anahai wore a threadbare, black-and-red-checkered jacket.

From out of one of the boxes that Fikes had labeled Friday night came a puffy, pink confection of a Hello Kitty jacket with a white faux-fur hood. Anahai’s eyes widened, and she gave a wide-open smile.

A sparkly, pink Dora the Explorer hat topped it off. She ripped off the old coat and swaddled herself in pink.

“Gracias. Muchas gracias,” said Salaya, holding his hand to his heart.

“This is the part I like best: the giving,” Naya told me.

In less than 60 minutes, 375 lunches and the contents of about a dozen huge boxes of clothing were gone. Louis Hutchinson said it was the biggest crowd of homeless people he’s seen in the park in the years they’ve been coming.

“A lot more kids, too,” he said.

Their little drive doesn’t solve everything. But a few hundred people will be warmer this weekend. And Louis and Demetra Hutchinson have a few dozen more converts to their method of hands-on giving by the well-off. Those folks will come again next year — most in comfortable shoes.

petula.dvorak@washpost.com

Twitter: @petulad

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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