Sunday, November 9, 1997
Gail Conner's endless line
of children

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Gail Conner doesn't want your help. Even though she plans to deliver 8,500 toys - footballs, basketballs, dolls, books, cameras, puzzles, games - to needy children, she is not asking for anything. Not money, not even wrapping paper.

This is personal.

On Nov. 17, 1990, Gail's sister was killed by a drunk driver. Beautiful, funny, adventurous 34-year-old Audrey, Gail's ''best buddy'' growing up in a Polish neighborhood on Chicago's south side. Gail didn't know how she could face the holidays.

The Conners - Gail and Bob, their daughter, Kimberly, and two sons, Michael and Gary - had just moved to West Chester from Knoxville, Tenn. ''I saw a story in the Enquirer about the FreeStore. There was a picture of people lined up for food, Thanksgiving dinner, I guess.''

She couldn't shake that image.

'A way to survive'

''They must need other things,'' she thought. She bought about 25 toys and wrapped them. ''Please don't make me out to be a saint. I'm not one of those perfect people,'' she says. ''This grew out of desperation. It was selfish, really, just a way to distract us, a way to survive the holidays without Audrey.''

On the day before Christmas, the Conners loaded their car and headed for Over-the-Rhine. Although it was early morning, the line already had formed at the FreeStore. ''I didn't know exactly what to do,'' Gail says, ''but I saw a woman with three or four kids and I said 'I don't mean to offend you, but would you like something for the children.'''

The woman started to cry.

''God bless you,'' the woman told Gail. ''We don't have a thing.''

Word spread. ''In a minute we were surrounded,'' Gail says. ''No grabbing, no pushing. Just laughter and a few more tears. I remember feeling so grateful I could be in the middle of such happiness on a day I had dreaded.''

The gaily wrapped packages disappeared quickly. Too quickly.

''Next year,'' Gail promised herself, ''we'll have more.'' Her goal is to beat that line, to get to the end of it with something left over.

The Christmas Eve trip downtown in a car became a trip downtown in a van, which became two vans, which became a truck. This year, they'll use two Ryder trucks, the moving vans which promise to hold ''seven or more rooms.'' It's a lot of stuff.

Gail now brings strings of lights, ornaments, candles, cookie jars (with cookies, of course) and ''odds and ends for the moms and dads.''

No freebies

Everything is new, nothing is donated. Not the trucks, not the rental space for the toys. Not the toys. This year, Gail did accept some leftover wrapping paper. Some fancy soaps and shampoo come from travels to nice hotels. ''Our friends bring toys'' to the Conners' Christmas party. But that's it. ''If I take something that's free, I'm taking it from somebody else who might really need it.''

She is not a saint. I know that because she tells me. Many times. And she says her family is ''blessed,'' which I suppose I also could have figured out by looking around their spacious Beckett Ridge home, with its pool and beautiful furnishings.

Or I could have simply looked at three attractive children, who seem to have swooped through the gene pool and grabbed the best of Bob's dark-haired good looks and Gail's startlingly blue eyes and strong features. Blessed.

But I don't care what they say, this family is something special. It might have something to do with the line. ''It changes you,'' Kim says.

''If everyone does a little,'' says Bob, who owns his own engineering and consulting business, ''then no one has to do a lot.''

Toys. Essential nonessentials. A haunting, endless line of need. That's what the Conner family has decided to do. Gail doesn't mean to sound ungrateful, but she thinks that if you look around, you will find a line of your own.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.