The volunteers of Project Elf spread magic to schoolchildren year round.
Terri Hozhabri and Laurie Tilley at the Project Elf headquarters with dozens of donated winter coats.
They aren’t asking for a video game system or a Barbie doll or anything most children think they need.
These children just want a pair of socks, a warm coat or maybe some school supplies.
Project Elf is here to see that they get them.
Magically and without fanfare, the 5-year-old Project Elf program fills basic needs for thousands of Tulsa area schoolchildren every year. The volunteers — or “elves” — who donate both time and money don’t just work around the holidays. These elves spread magic year round and it comes in a plain brown bag.
Project Elf co-founders Terri Hozhabri and Laurie Tilley started the organization when Hozhabri realized that children at her son’s school were going without basic items, such as a pair of shoes or a jacket.
“Laurie and I decided that we can do something about this,” Hozhabri says.
And they did.
The two Tulsans asked 30 friends to help gather items, and Project Elf was born. Now, the volunteers number more than 500 and the 501(c)3 nonprofit helps students in 70 schools.
The donated items, which once landed on Hozhabri and Tilley’s doorsteps, have a home in office space supplied by the Warren Foundation.
Project Elf works to meet the needs of Tulsa schoolchildren without overlapping the efforts of other nonprofits.
“We are filling the gaps and deal directly with the schools so there is no red tape,” Hozhabri says.
Project Elf’s mission is to enhance the school learning environment by providing students with the basics. These include coats, shoes, clothing, uniforms, school supplies, backpacks, hats, gloves, socks and undergarments.
Tilley says a direct correlation exists between meeting a child’s basic needs and his or her school performance.
“The kids can’t concentrate on learning if they are cold,” she says.
Hozhabri, who also serves as Project Elf’s executive director, says the program works to “level the playing field” by also funding field trips, special projects and after-school programs at schools that would otherwise not have the money.
She says there is a story behind every need Project Elf works to meet.
“I will never forget the little girl who was wearing her grandmother’s clothes, the elementary-school boy whose eyes lit up because he never had matching pajamas before or the boy who received new shoes to replace the ones that were duct-taped together,” Hozhabri says.
School counselors, social workers and teachers who observe a need contact Project Elf directly. Material or monetary donations from the 500 volunteers fill the majority of needs.
If the needed item is not in inventory, a request is sent out to the elves.
The volunteers remain anonymous, just like Santa’s elves. When the item arrives, a Project Elf volunteer either delivers it
to the school or it is picked up at Project Elf. Hozhabri says the program’s goal is to fill every request within one week.
Diane Hensley, principal of Mark Twain Elementary School, says Project Elf helps her students and teaches them a valuable lesson.
“All of us can benefit and learn from helping others, and we need to instill that in kids very young, starting as young as 3 or 4 years old,” she says.
In a school where extra change is hard to come by, the students at Mark Twain Elementary participated in a coin drive, raising $323 for Project Elf.
Project Elf volunteer and board member Jandra Jorgenson says the organization differs from other charities because the impact is immediate.
“There is a one-on-one cause and effect that we witness,” she says. "A ‘thank you’ comes in many forms at Project Elf. Sometimes it is a smile, other times tears and, often, in handwritten notes.”
In perfect penmanship, one note reads, “Thanks to your helping hands for giving me happy feet.”
Another note, accompanied by the image of a grinning elementary-school girl, reads, “Thank you for the coat. My coat was stolen. My mom cried because she could not afford a new one.
“When I came home with one of those coats, my mom cried again but this time because she was happy. I love this coat because my favorite color is purple and I love glitter.”
Still another reads, “Thank you for the supplies and tell Santa I said hi.”
To learn how to become an elf, e-mail info@ProjectElf.org. Community partner 918moms.com proudly supports Project Elf. Visit 918moms.com/blogs/news_in_the_918 for a list of needed items and donate the items at the KOTV The News on 6 headquarters, 302 S. Frankfort Ave.
Melanie Henry co-founded 918moms.com, a community website for moms who swap stories, save money and share advice. Learn more at 918moms.com.