Excitement and anticipation ran high in The Barry Robinson Center cafeteria as Dennis Benson spoke to employees from 17 Applebee’s restaurants right before children and teens joined them for a joyful holiday celebration on Tuesday, December 11, 2018.
“Our four corporate values have never been more aligned than what we’re doing here today,” Benson said, referencing his company’s values – passion for people, fun with respect and integrity, deliver operational excellence and growth through teamwork.
Applebee’s has been bringing Christmas joy to the Center for 23 years. Each year, employees at Applebee’s restaurants in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina raise funds to purchase gifts for residents at the Center. And it’s clear the employees look forward to sharing the holiday spirit.
Benson, president of Potomac Family Dining Group, which owns more than 60 Applebee’s in Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, recognizes the legacy the restaurant has established with the Center. This is Benson’s sixth year with the event.
“Our employees are expanding their family by another child for the day,” he said. “This project fits so well with our Applebee’s family-style brand, where everyone is welcome and we’re your friends in the neighborhood. Everyone participates at some level, and we appreciate the connectivity, to meet the children and the staff.”
Applebee’s champion for organizing the holiday party is Heather Kuster, an area director who has coordinated the project for the past 11 years and was a participant for several years prior to that. The Center’s CEO Rob McCartney recognized and thanked Kuster for her commitment.
“Every store is literally Santa Claus for these kids,” she said. “Christmas is a really big deal in my family, and it’s a really big deal to me to help the children here at the Center. It’s a really happy time.”
Employees at each participating Applebee’s location raise funds, among themselves and also customers – car washes, bake sales, raffles, jeans days and more. Helping increase awareness of the Center in the community is another benefit that Applebee’s provides through this project.
Applebee’s employees raise thousands of dollars, which each restaurant uses to sponsor two to four children – selecting and wrapping gifts, stuffing stockings and bringing food treats.
Plenty of smiles filled the Center’s cafeteria, transformed into “party central” for the event. “I love this!” “It’s exactly what I wanted!” and of course, “Thank you so much!” could be heard around the tables as the residents opened gifts.
As a special treat, the Center’s Voices of Pride choir and musicians, including several younger residents playing kazoos, entertained the Applebee’s guests with holiday songs.
Kim Chamberlain and Patrick Day work at the Applebee’s on Main Street in downtown Suffolk. This is their fourth year participating in the event. They said that while the children are different each year, the joy of the event remains constant.
“It’s the highlight of our year because it’s so rewarding,” Chamberlain said. “I’m a parent and I love to watch kids open gifts, although I never saw kids open them so slowly as today,” she added, laughing.
“This is the greatest thing I can do, showing up to bring some holiday joy to these kids,” Day said.