Carmel Valley dance studio North County Dance Arts formed a one-on-one military adoption program, Bells of Freedom, which enables donors to personally thank servicemen and women who dedicate their lives to our country.
For studio owner Louis McKay, giving back is a way to repay many times over kindness shown to him and his wife Tanya years ago.
"One year when we didn't have any money, and we were really struggling, Thanksgiving came up and we didn't know what we were going to do or how we were going to have a Thanksgiving," McKay said. "All of the sudden there was a knock at the door and nobody was there but a big huge basket with a big turkey in it and a pie and all the dressings and everything. And I ran out to see who was there and nobody was there."
The McKays decided then and there that if they ever had the opportunity to help people in the same manner, they would.
An opportunity arose a few years later, when the family was in better financial shape.
McKay's sister worked with low-income families, and during the holidays, they would ask if she knew any needy families. His sister would take the family out to see Christmas lights, while the McKays would fill the house with gifts. Later, they began sponsoring military families through their church, Solana Beach Presbyterian.
Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, the McKays were discussing their plans to sponsor military families while in the lobby of their studio. A student overhead and expressed interest in doing the same, and soon the entire lobby was talking about sponsoring military families for the holidays. So the McKays decided to do it through the dance studio.
During the holidays of 2001, Dance Arts adopted four families, which increased to six the next year and ten the next. Soon, many wanted to sponsor an entire family. The program has grown each year, and last year the studio adopted 68 families, as well as many single Marines.
Three years ago, in order to be eligible for corporate sponsorships, the McKays founded the nonprofit Dance Hearts, and named the wing helping military families Bells of Freedom.
When the operation increased, McKay contacted the commanding officers of the battalions at Camp Pendleton about sponsoring more families. But McKay ran into roadblocks, because the Marines were reluctant to receive anything that could be construed as charity.
"I had to go and have a meeting with the commanding officers and the master sergeants and the colonels, and I told them that this wasn't really a handout," McKay said. After several meetings, the McKays were given names of Marine families.
Last year, a foundation gave Bells of Freedom money enabling them to send all the adopted families to Disneyland, where some had never visited.
Currently, Bells of Freedom is looking for a new corporate sponsor in the hopes of sending this year's families to Disneyland.
For more information or to make a donation, visit www.bellsoffreedom.org or contact Louis McKay at (858) 792-9303. The donations are tax deductible and are needed year-round. All of the proceeds go to military families.