Written by T. M. Jacobs, Jacobs Writing Consultants
Christmas may only come once a year, but for Audrey McFalls this holiday remains at the center of her heart. Ensuring that each family receives gifts for their children and is prayed with are the two most important parts of the celebration. She started Oma’s Heart in 2001 with the passion to give to families in need, and to pray with them over anything they may be experiencing in their lives.
Oma, means “grandmother” in Dutch, so it’s no surprise that Oma’s Heart is named after Audrey’s mother, who loved her children and grandchildren unconditionally. “Every year,” she says, “my two daughters and I would go take a tag off of a Christmas tree and buy one gift for one child in need.” She realized that the child would a receive wonderful gift, but what about the mom? “How can we make it so the mom picks out gifts for her child instead of someone else choosing them?” She felt she could do something more, and once the idea was planted in her heart, Oma’s Heart came about.
The concept of Oma’s Heart is to supply parents with gifts for their children at Christmas, at no cost.
“I presented the idea to various organizations many years ago,” she says, “but the idea was shot down. One response was ‘There are so many services that are here on Christmas, you’d be just one of many.’” This unfortunately caused Audrey to table her idea. So several years later, when the economy took a nose dive, she realized her neighbors and friends were affected and took action. “I spoke with a few friends and we all agreed, ‘Let’s do it.’ By March 2011 we were incorporated; by September we were established as a 501(c)3, and we opened our doors for the first time in December.”
Oma’s Heart opened up at the Cape Coral Kiwanis on Santa Barbara Blvd and almost immediately “it was too small,” she recalled. Gifts for over 800 children went out the door during the first year. Audrey was amazed at how the whole system worked, how it was laid out, and all the volunteers who helped. “We thought it was so amazing, we decided to do it again. I went to God, ‘We did this for You. Did we do good?’ He inevitably always replies, ‘It was great, now make it better.’”
Oma’s Heart Grows
After that first year, the store was moved to the North Fort Myers High School. They continued to create an environment where mom and dad would shop for toys and at the same time, create an experience for the entire family, different from anything that’s out there.
From the first year, Home Depot enthusiastically partnered with Oma’s Heart; they would recruit employees willing to volunteer their time, gather tools and wooden kits and design a Santa’s workshop for the kids.
The experience at Oma’s Heart is truly unique from other charity services. There is a dual registration process, one for the parents and one for the children. Following registration, the children then enter Santa’s workshop, while the parents are served some light refreshments, prayed with, and shop for toys. “Out of the 590 families that came to Oma’s Heart last year,” says Audrey, “only three chose not to be prayed with. Whether you call it a religious experience or not”, according to Audrey, “this is where they get to connect.” Parents are asked if they own a bible, if not, Oma’s Heart will supply one. They have bibles available in English and Spanish. “At Oma’s Heart, it’s about Christmas and making families feel special.” Audrey says, “We don’t claim to have the all the answers, but it helps when you simply listen and show that you truly care.”
At the next part of the process, an Elf escorts the parents into the store where they get to pick out gifts that are age appropriate for their child(ren), then dropped off in an area where Oma’s Heart supplies all the necessary materials for the parents to wrap each gift. Then they load up their car and return to pick up their child(ren).
When it comes to finding families in need, Audrey came to the conclusion that “who knows children the best – teachers.” Audrey said “My daughter is a teacher, and she’s always telling me which family is doing fine and which family might need help.” She wasted no time in getting the Lee County School District involved and they were completely on board with her project. “We’ll give you whatever you want,” was their response.
Oma’s Heart has been successful at utilizing the school Social Workers to assist in finding the families that most need their service. This year they are also seeking the help of Parent Involvement Specialists. Audrey will be meeting with Lee County School staff to train and give out all the needed paperwork. After all the information is collected, it goes to the district, where they will create a database. “This will prevent such things as mom collecting gifts at one school and dad collecting gifts from another school,” she said.
“What’s nice now is it’s turning out to be so much more than just gifts,” said Audrey. “We have seen so many positive things happen to families and even have some families come back to volunteer. That full-circle is what it is all about.”
The communities within Lee County come together for Oma’s Heart with toy drives and donations. Several schools have done toy drives, while many businesses have done various fund raisers as well.
The Name Oma & Coming From Holland
Audrey recalled how her mother, Oma, dedicated her life to her five children. “She came over from Holland, leaving all of her family behind. She never worked outside the house, but took care of the family,” says Audrey. “If I can give myself any bit of credit for being a good mom, it’s because of her. She was a great role model.”
It was an absolute given when Audrey had to come up with a name for her organization. Knowing that her mother was all about children, it made sense to call it Oma’s Heart. “She was an amazing, Godly woman, and I just know she’s up there rooting for me.”
Audrey’s father was a cartographer and eventually they were sponsored by a church and left Holland and moved to Detroit. They later moved to Wisconsin, then Alabama, and finally settle in Tampa, Florida. His last position was with the Lee County Property Appraiser. “The funny thing is,” Audrey recalled, “my father always said, ‘as soon as they make maps on a computer, I’m out!’ And I laugh about that because that’s now what I do; make maps on a computer.”
At one point in time all of Audrey’s siblings had done some form of mapping. “While working for the County,” she says, “I was able to learn some automated drafting and began to feel the bug.” Although she couldn’t work for the Property Appraiser’s office while her father was employed there, since he would have been her supervisor. But not long after he retired and the position opened up, she decided to go for it. Twenty six years later you can still find her there.
Audrey was an infant when her family left Holland in 1961 and came to America. “My parents left all their family behind, with 5 kids and very little money. We came through Ellis Island, on our way to Detroit. I could not ask for a better upbringing than I had with my parents and family.” The things Audrey admires about her parents was their dedication to each other throughout their 49 years together, their decision to come to America, to become Americans, learn the language and culture, yet never losing their Dutch roots.
Audrey met her future husband during her first day on the job. She had a window view from her desk while working in the permit department. That day she saw a guy on a bike ride past, then three days later, that same man came into her office. “He worked code enforcement for Lee County,” she says. “He came up to me and asked me out for lunch.” At the time Audrey says she was not ready to date, although she did have a feeling that she would one day marry this man. He asked her to lunch a second time – two years later! This time she agreed to the invite. “Less than a year later,” according to Audrey, “we were married. Now it’s twenty-five years later.”
Living In Cape Coral
When it comes to living in Cape Coral, Audrey likes the small town feel. “I like the parades, the farmer markets, and you don’t have leave Cape Coral if you don’t want to. We have everything here.”
Both of Audrey’s daughters live in the Cape. “It’s a great place to raise a family,” she says. “The schools are amazing. It’s a great up and coming town.”
Audrey and her husband have two daughters, Carly and Amanda. Audrey speaks proudly of her two daughters and their accomplishments. “Carly works as a teacher at Tropic Isles Elementary School in North Fort Myers, while Amanda is an EKG Tech at Gulf Coast Hospital.” Both girls serve on the Board of Directors for Oma’s Heart. Amanda has a daughter, Lyla, who Audrey admits, “has my heart.” Her hope is for one day to have her daughters take the reins of Oma’s Heart.
Breast Cancer Brings A Gift
In 2012, Audrey was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her first chemo treatment was scheduled for the day after Thanksgiving, with the Oma’s Heart event scheduled for the following week. “I thought, God how am I going to do this?” she said. “I panicked and hoped I could possibly change or postpone my chemo appointment.” The day before Audrey’s chemo treatment, she caught a cold and had to reschedule, but was instructed to avoid being around large groups of people, including the crowd at Oma’s Heart.
“The event that year,” says Audrey, “was held at the Grace Community Center, which happens to have a sound booth. I sat up in the booth and just observed the day. It was at that point I realized that Oma’s Heart was not about me. It has nothing to do with me. That particular day was like a gift to me; the event ran perfect. I know now that Oma’s Heart has everything to do with God for planting the idea, all the folks that volunteer and work so incredibly hard, and for the families that benefit from it.”
Audrey did go through chemo treatments and today is cancer free today.
“It been an amazing journey,” she says. “It’s hard to believe that the first year we provided gifts for 800 children, and last year well over 2000.”
Numerous people have said Audrey McFalls makes such a difference with the families in the community. She would be the first one to tell you that she is not the one that makes the difference, it’s Oma’s Heart that makes the difference.
Thank you, Audrey, for all the love and support that you and Oma’s Heart bring to the community!