By Matt Reese
Generations of children have hauled just about anything that can be hauled in the classic little red wagon which has never really gone out of style. Sadly, though, some children in Ohio will never get the simple pleasure of this special Christmas gift because of numerous challenging circumstances for Ohio families in poverty. To address this issue, over 750 volunteers gathered in Columbus in early December to build 1,500 wagons (each with a Christmas dinner for a family) through the Wagons Ho Ho Ho program.
Donn Ditzhazy is co-founder and a board member of the 501c3 charity, founded on the goal of delivering Christmas hope to children and families in need during the holidays. Wagons Ho Ho Ho got its start as a charity project for Columbus-based RMD Advertising that focuses on food product promotion.
“Fourteen years ago we thought we’d take the money earmarked for client gifts and buy something nice. We decided to buy these old-fashioned wagons based on the 1932 models. They are sturdy and metal,” Ditzhazy said. “The idea was that these would stay around for years. As toys maybe break, these wagons will be a sturdy present they can use all year. It can be a joy for them to maybe pass these down to their kids one day.”
The first year was meaningful, and enjoyable for the participants and the recipients.
“We built them as a team building exercise and made 25 wagons. It was so much fun and it felt good to do that. We increased it the next few years and we got up to 200 wagons. We decided we needed to turn this into a formal 501 c3 charity because we wanted to fund more wagons and we needed more help to build them. Every year we have been building more wagons, and we put a Christmas dinner in every single wagon,” Ditzhazy said. “We called on the community to come in and help us build these wagons in one day on Dec 4. We had 750 volunteers, we call them wagoneers. We have 3 different shifts and we also have packers to get the Christmas dinners together. We firmly believe there is such a need out there and every child deserves a Christmas. We really want to deliver hope to children. It is a tradition that, once you build the wagon, you flip it over and sign it with a Sharpie and write a good will message — whatever motivational message you want.”
Wagons Ho Ho Ho works with partner charities, including the National Youth Advocate Program, HapCap Head Start (a nonprofit focused on alleviating poverty in Southeast Ohio), Columbus Early Learning Centers, Communities In Schools, Whitehall City Schools, and several churches.
“We found that as we started growing, there were other charities out there to work with and help distribute. They know the families in need throughout the state,” Ditzhazy said. “They come in and they may take 25 wagons or 100 wagons and bring them to the families in need. We have grown this charity beyond Franklin County to hit many other counties. Some of our charity partners have been with us for years. Some are very rural and some are very urban.”
Along with building the unassembled wagons, volunteers donate money, pack up the meals and enjoy doing something for others.
“We have wonderful volunteers we call food champions. On our build day event we’ll have some companies come in with maybe 1,500 boxes of mashed potatoes or cans of sweet potatoes and the other food items. We have pickers and packers to pack dinners in the wagons for 4 to 6 people. We have vegetables and mashed potatoes and everything you’d want for a meal. The meat is canned chicken,” Ditzhazy said. “We ask our volunteers to clean out their pantries and bring at least 3 cans with them on the day of the build. Along with the meals in the wagons, we have been donating to pantries about 5,000 pounds of food. We are proud of the wagons, families and the volunteers and the Christmas dinner, but then they also give a little more to keep this extending on.”
This year’s wagons from Wagons Ho Ho Ho, will hopefully alleviate some stress and financial burdens for 1,500 Ohio families.
“In the state of Ohio the poverty rate overall is 14% and the child poverty rate is 20% — 9% of families are living in extreme poverty, so it is out there,” Ditzhazy said. “In some cases, both mom and dad are out there working, but maybe every other week they are running out of money to put food on the table. That food insecurity is out there too and if we can give a Christmas dinner along with a Christmas gift of a nice, red, shiny wagon we can take a little stress off of that family for Christmas.”
Feedback from the program shows the simple gift does make a difference.
“One year a charity took 100 wagons out to families in rural Ohio. This charity went back in the middle of the next summer to deliver produce. All of these little kids with their wagons in tow went down to the church parking lot to get their produce. They got their produce in their wagons and headed home. It just melts your heart,” he said.
This year’s wagons have already been built and delivered, but Wagons Ho Ho Ho is always looking to expand with more donations, new charity partners and additional avenues to reach those in need around the state.
“Unfortunately last year in 2020 we could not do the building day, which is sad because there was such a need, as always, for the wagons. Some of the charities still are not getting out there this season and we have a call out to other charities and nonprofits to come in this year,” Ditzhazy said. “We are a charity that is 100% volunteer driven and 100% of every dollar coming in goes to buy wagons. We do look for donations for this and look for sponsors who can donate at wagonshohoho.org. You can even buy a t-shirt to support us and wear it proudly. We also are hosting a Christmas in July 5K Walk & Fun Run to raise money.”
The ultimate hope is to provide some hope in the form of a little red wagon for children in dire need throughout every state in the U.S.
“We are proud of what we do for the families in need in Ohio. Sometimes I think, though, this is as much about the volunteers coming together. We have over 750 volunteers coming together working elbow to elbow. That is where the joy of Christmas comes in. They know there’s a need,” Ditzhazy said. “They don’t know the kids personally but they are doing something good and it makes them feel good. It is a holiday tradition for many of the volunteers who come in, many from out of the county. I think the community coming together means almost as much as helping other families in need.”