FORT LEE, Va. -- When Staff Sgt. Ariesa Griffin came to shop at the Fort Lee Holiday Helper toy store last week, she easily blended in with the hundreds of other military members who came before her. That is until the program manager asked her, "How many children do you have?" She responded, "Nine," a number that grabbed the attention of several board members nearby.
And there was more to the story. Calmly explaining her situation, the Romeo Company, 262nd Quartermaster Battalion Soldier said, "I lost my sister in February, and her children are with me."
Little more needed to be spoken. Hearts were captured and volunteers were ready to do whatever was necessary to make sure this single mom had everything she needed from the toy store. It was among the defining moments of this year's Holiday Helper program.
The rest of Griffin's story is compelling, and the humble way she tells it is both heartwarming and thought provoking. There's a sincere goodness about it … a testament to those who remain upbeat while desperately trying to do the right thing despite multiple challenges that could easily turn one's life upside down. In short, she is doing what many of us would consider impossible.
"My sister and her children moved in with me and my three children and granddaughter back in February," Griffin said. "She was trying to improve her life and get the children into a better environment."
It was a short-lived dream that came to an abrupt end one night when Griffin received the news that her sister had died from a drug overdose.
"When she passed away, I thought about the children a lot," Griffin said. "I knew (caring for them) wouldn't be easy with only one income, but all of us -- especially my mother -- wanted them to stay together."
The decision was made, and Griffin assumed the responsibility for five more children. What makes it even more challenging is the range of ages, from 1 to 18 years old, which requires her to be as equally concerned about diapers and daycare as she is about teen discipline and making sure the kids are doing well at school. While her relationship with the younger ones is improving daily, the older newcomers in the household have not been easily won over. When they disagree with her, she said they typically retort "I'm not your Soldier."
"It has been a rough transition and we are still adjusting," Griffin said. "Earlier on, some people would say, 'send them over here or send them over there,' and I would reply, 'I'm going to do the best that I can; it's my responsibility.'"
Living up to that mantra, she has firmly grasped the role of mother figure while seeking out whatever assistance she can to make sure the children are healthy both physically and mentally. "I've been trying to find good programs to help (my sister's) children," she said. "I've been seeing signs that even the youngest ones need additional care."
Griffin gives great praise to the chaplains on Fort Lee, saying "they have been extremely helpful and they have looked out for me." She also credits the Army Community Service Financial Program for teaching her how to budget her money and make the dollar stretch.
"I learned that you can buy a lot with $100," she said.
The staff sergeant also touts the great support she has received from the senior leaders and peers in her unit. Summing it up in a single word, "outstanding," she said they're considerate and supportive. "And they don't complain when I bring all these kids to a Family Readiness Group meeting. The usual comment is 'come on in and bring the football team.'"
Acknowledging the Army's support of military Families in general, Griffin said that she's very appreciative of the many services and programs that have been made available to her as well. "If I wasn't in the military, I don't know if I would be able to make it," she added.
While many challenges remain -- like the ongoing court battle for custody of the children that will make her eligible for financial assistance from the estranged father and other government benefits that are not available to her at this time -- Griffin remains positive and hopeful. In difficult times, she said, the Lord always finds a way to get her through it.
"I'm fighting for this because I know it's in the best interest of the children," she said. "I just want these kids to see a good role model and be raised in an environment that is positive and nurturing. We're getting there … they have clothes on their backs and they might have to share, but we're working it out."
Griffin said her hope for tomorrow is to see the children grow into productive citizens and loving adults. While many of her own enjoyments in life, such as shopping in Williamsburg, have been put on hold for now, she is determined to accept each challenge as it comes and forge ahead.
"My youngest sister will be coming to stay with me and help out once she graduates from college in the spring. That will make things a little easier. Like I said, there's always a silver lining somewhere -- you just need to stay confident and look for it."
Needless to say, Griffin won the support of the Holiday Helper board members with her gracious attitude, golden heart and giving spirit, and no one needs to worry about Christmas morning for her children. Board members Idian Hall, Carlton Branch and Karen McComas made certain they would have a holiday that will not be forgotten anytime soon.
"We've all heard the saying, 'it takes a village to raise a child,'" said McComas. "Well, in Staff Sgt. Griffin's case, it takes hard work, a lot of understanding, a great deal of patience and the support of the Fort Lee community." To reiterate a comment that was posted in response to the story on Holiday Helper's Facebook, "This is what it's all about; an organization with a big heart helping a mother with an even bigger one!"