It's 5 p.m., and the employee cafeteria of Henry Schein's corporate headquarters in Melville is abuzz with activity.
It's hard to believe that just 21/2 hours earlier, employees were in here quietly munching on their wraps and salads. But at 2:30 p.m., the coordinators of the Holiday Cheer for Children event -- the culmination of a yearlong slate of Schein volunteer initiatives -- swooped in to transform the 3,500-square-foot space into a child's fantasy of what Christmas Day should look like: plates of cookies, cotton candy, balloons in the shape of reindeer antlers, face painting, Sesame Street characters, a magnificently red-robed and authentically bewhiskered Santa (actually Jim Paviglianiti of Centereach, whose wife Cathy is a Schein employee) and of course, lots and lots of presents.
There's just one thing: This is not Christmas Day, it's Dec. 6. But don't tell that to the approximately 300 children and 150 parents who are already crowding the lobby, eager to gain entrance. For them, today is Christmas morning, or as close as they're likely to get.
Planning for the Cheer event -- held annually by medical distributor Schein since 1999 -- has been underway for months and reached a fever pitch in the previous 24 hours.
"We were here last night until midnight," said a weary but smiling Margaret Watt of North Massapequa, who has been with Schein for eight years and has the uplifting job title of "process improvement manager." It's also a good description of her role, and indeed the role of the approximately 60 Schein employees involved in this event, which seeks to improve the quality of the holiday for underprivileged children.
Henry Schein is neither a human services organization, a nonprofit, nor a trendy Silicon Valley company run by young gazillionaires who want to save the rain forest. It's a locally based global company that in the past 82 years has grown from a small neighborhood pharmacy in Woodside, Queens (started by its namesake in the depths of the Great Depression), into the world's largest provider of health care products and services to office-based dental, veterinary and medical practitioners. It is Long Island's largest public company by sales, reporting revenue of $2.349 billion for the three months ended in September.
That December evening, through the auspices of 11 local social service agencies and thanks to the generosity of Schein and its employees, these children and their families enjoyed a lavish Christmas dinner and celebration. (Schein sponsored 605 children; those not in attendance received their gifts separately.) The highlight of the nearly three-hour party was when Schein employees delivered gifts to the children at their tables. Each child submitted a wish list in advance; each of those lists was then assigned to a Schein volunteer, who in turn purchased some or all of the gifts on the list. Employees were encouraged to spend at least $50. According to event coordinator Amber Rose, most far exceeded that, and some spent as much as $250 of their own money on Holiday Cheer gifts.
"Their generosity was amazing," Rose said.
Nearly as impressive as Schein's commitment to employee volunteering: It is estimated that more than half of the company's 16,000 employees worldwide -- about 1,200 of whom are in Melville -- engage in some sort of volunteer activity through the company.
In addition to the Holiday Cheer party, the major volunteer initiatives at Schein include the Back to School event, in which Schein volunteers buy and distribute backpacks for local, needy children, filled with supplies, books, hygiene products and clothes, in time for the start of the school year. The company also partners with the American Cancer Society for Schein's "Think Pink, Practice Pink" campaign, which was started in 2006 and promotes breast cancer awareness, research, care and a cure.
Through its Henry Schein Cares Foundation, established in 2008, the company helps provide improved access to dental, medical and veterinary care to underserved and at-risk communities around the world. The mission also involves disaster preparedness and relief. After superstorm Sandy in October 2012, Team Schein members collected food, clothing, linens, diapers and other personal items for Island Harvest and The Salvation Army. Henry Schein Cares also provided cleaning kits for employees affected by the storm and opened a disaster relief hotline for dentists, physicians and veterinarians who had business disruptions.
Schein employees also work with the Huntington Interfaith Homeless Initiative to prepare an annual dinner for the homeless in late winter; and lend their time and talents to the Suffolk County chapter of Habitat for Humanity, which builds and repairs homes for needy families. These volunteer efforts are duplicated in Schein offices in other parts of the country and overseas, where it operates in more than 20 countries.
"It's one of the most important parts of the culture here," said Dan LaRosa, 46, of Babylon, Schein's community service manager, who joined the company two years ago. "As an individual you don't always have an opportunity to do this kind of thing, but here you have the structure."
The volunteerism has the approval and support of top management, which views the commitment to programs like Holiday Cheer as being good for business as well as for the community.
"We believe that good corporate culture promotes good business," said Gerry Benjamin, Schein's executive vice president. He has worked at Schein for 25 years. "When you have good culture, you have trust. Everyone cares about each other and that translates into better care of the customer. And that means better business."
The impetus of these efforts, Benjamin added, is not just to help Schein's bottom line. "I think part of the responsibility of a corporation is to give back," said Benjamin, who along with a half dozen other senior executives dished out burgers and fries to the children and their families on the Holiday Cheer party food line. "I think you can do well, by doing good. This is what we truly believe."
It's a belief shared by Stephen G. Post, a professor of preventive medicine at Stony Brook University who has studied the health effects of volunteerism.
"Other corporations should be modeling this behavior," he said of Schein's efforts. "You're going to have happier, healthier employees and much better worker retention."
According to Post, who is also co-author of bestsellers "The Hidden Gifts of Helping" and "Why Good Things Happen to Good People," research has shown that workers who volunteer report lower stress levels, deeper friendships and greater resiliency.
The happiness quotient at the Holiday Cheer party was indeed high, and it wasn't just because of the presence of Santa, the gifts, or a 3-foot-high chocolate fountain. Most of the families had endured tough times. But that night there were warm smiles as their children eagerly unwrapped electronic games, sports equipment, toys of every size and shape, and even a few bicycles, rolled (unwrapped) into the room by Schein employees.
One of those parents, Shawn Flowers of Freeport, looked admiringly around the room at the festivities, the decorations, the foods, the gifts.
"It took a lot to put this on," said Flowers, whose six children ranging in age from 4 to 14 were among the guests. "I'm very grateful for that."
Others noticed the same thing.
"The organization is very, very good," said Flo Jurado of West Hempstead, as she watched John Scano, a Schein employee from Huntington, arrive at her table with an armload of gifts for her three children. The two boys tore into their presents and squealed with delight at what they received: Christian, 4, got a slick Matchbox car; Justin, 6, received a Nintendo DS handheld gaming system. Meanwhile, Emily, their more reserved 8-year-old sister, carefully unwrapped her gift, an Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven.
Scano, who has been at Schein for 10 years and works in finance, knelt down next to Emily as she opened it. "Are you going to make something for your mom?" he asked. Emily nodded and said "a cupcake." Her mother began to cry.
Scano, who was so upbeat during his gift presentation, was more circumspect later. He knows that, corporate culture aside, what the Holiday Cheer party and his volunteer efforts provide is fleeting but tangible.
"I feel like I made a difference for a few people for a few hours tonight," he said. "To bring joy to their lives, even for just a short period . . . that's a good thing."