December 2019

The Angels of Oyster Landing Road

Author: Kitty Bartell | Photographer: M.Kat Photography, Celia G. Photographie

Marge Tomczak and Michele Synal

From the beginning of time there have been those with plenty, those with enough, those with not a lot, and those with little or nothing. And fortunately, there have also been angels walking among us who create pathways connecting individuals in need with folks who are willing and able to give. During the holidays, there is an extra measure of magic in the air, laced with nostalgia, and love, and a desire to connect. This is a story about one such angel and her exceedingly generous neighbors.

Before settling fulltime on Hilton Head Island, Michele Szynal had a career of experience creating pathways between companies and individuals with those in need. “I worked for IBM for 50 years in the Hudson Valley area of New York,” she said. “I had a wonderful job. I did all their social and recreational programs and communication, and one of my responsibilities was to coordinate an adopt-a-family program for them.”

Like some wonderful Christmas kismet, in 2017 Szynal was working part time at Branches in the Village at Wexford when she met Marge Tomczak. And where this story could rightly be written about Tomczak, a member of Holy Family Catholic Church’s congregation and ministries and volunteering dynamo, it is going to be about the way one casual conversation led to boundless holiday joy.

“We were just chatting,” Szynal said. “I commented that she was always running around doing this and that, and she said she was coordinating an adopt-a-family program.”

Learning that the program was through Holy Family’s Hispanic Ministry, Szynal knew she could create a pathway from her experience in the Hudson Valley to her home on Hilton Head Island, continuing a legacy of giving handed-down to her by her father. “I get my heart for volunteering from my dad,” she said. “He still enjoys volunteering all the time. He plays Santa Claus, and back in New York he used to put up 800 flags on graves on Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

“I told Marge that if she needed some help, I thought I could convince our neighbors to adopt a family—and Branches to adopt a family.” In 2017 she met that goal. “I wrote a letter and distributed it to all the neighbors on the street and gave them a list of the names of the children and their ages. I came up with a chart and put that with the letter, and then the neighbors chose what they wanted to shop for. Some of them didn’t want to shop or didn’t have time, so they graciously donated cash or checks, and I went shopping for them.”

Like a festive garland strung from one heart to the next, from one neighbor to the next, and from one stranger to the next, Szynal and her neighbors on Oyster Landing Road in Sea Pines have been connecting generous souls with grateful families ever since. “I didn’t know what the response was going to be,” she said. “I was overwhelmed.” In addition to buying presents for the families, the neighbors wrapped each gift. “They were just so pretty with all the ribbons and bows. They were so generous, and when they wrapped the gifts, they had bells and whistles on the presents.”

Unlike her program in New York, Holy Family’s ministry was not anonymous, adding a depth of connection with the recipients. “I went with Marge to deliver the gifts to the families,” Szynal said. “What an experience. We had bicycles, we had sheets, we had towels, we had blankets, we had clothes, we had food, we had everything. Just about everybody on our street donated something. That’s amazing. We put the gifts under their trees and let the children each open one. We hoped they wouldn’t open the rest of the presents until Christmas.

“I knew everyone would be appreciative of this, but until you see it firsthand… There were two sisters at the first home we went to; they were so excited, and the mom was crying, but she kept saying thank you and hugging me. It was the same way with the other families.”

Most of the families served are headed by single mothers. The Angels of Oyster Landing Road not only delivered presents and necessities to the children to make their Christmases more joyful, they wanted to provide something for the mothers, as well. “The mothers’ wishes were so unselfish. They wanted things like griddles and a waffle-makers. That was for their children so they could cook for them. The mothers don’t want anything for themselves,” Szynal said.

The neighbors on Oyster Landing Road adopted two families in 2017 and three families in 2018. Branches adopted a family each year, as well. Plans are to grow the donations in 2019. “It’s just a feel-good program,” Szynal said. Individual families often have a tradition of adopting another family or child during the holidays, however, with the power of a whole street or neighborhood behind the effort, so many needs are met and special wishes granted. “Someone suggested that we share this program through The Pines [the Sea Pines community newsletter] in Sea Pines. We thought it might spark other neighborhoods to do the same thing.” With 50-plus families on the Adopt-a-Family program list at Holy Family alone, there is no shortage of opportunities on the island for neighbors to create pathways of generosity.

Creating a little magic of her own, Szynal has shared some of her homemade goodies with her neighbors each season after the Adopt-a-Family gifts have been delivered. “The first year I had all the neighbors over on a Sunday. I invited them to bring their gifts and had a little party for them. In 2017 I made chocolate-covered Oreos, and in 2019 it was homemade peanut butter cups,” she said. “It’s on behalf of the families as a little something to say thank you. They don’t expect anything.”

And all because of a serendipitous meeting between two angels among us, each looking to create a little holiday joy. 

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