ARLINGTON -- There was always one thing Darren Oliver could look forward to every Christmas.
"The best thing about Christmas is that every year my mom would put Nerf footballs in our stockings," Oliver said. "That would be the first thing that we grabbed. We'd take the wrapper off and start slinging it in the street. Before you know it, we would have a touch football game going. The neat thing about a Nerf football is you could throw it as far as you wanted ... until it got wet."
Maybe throwing a Nerf football on Christmas morning is how Oliver built up the arm strength that has allowed him to enjoy a 17-year Major League career as a starter and relief pitcher.
Memories of great holidays in the past also help provide motivation for Oliver and his wife, Melissa, to get involved in helping others enjoy Christmas.
Five days before Christmas, Darren and Melissa, along with other members of their family, hosted a holiday dinner for 15 area families at the Ballpark in Arlington. Dinner was served, $100 gift certificates from Target were passed out and each family took home a bag with everything needed to cook Christmas dinner.
After all, as Oliver remembers it, a Christmas meal with the family is just as important as slinging the Nerf football in the street.
"It definitely makes Christmas more special to have a nice dinner," Oliver said. "It's great to have the family all around, talking and smiling and a lot of laughter. My mom would cook turkey and ham, make greens and sweet potato pie and cook breakfast. It was great."
The families who were the recipients of Oliver's generosity are all trying to get their lives back together after some rough times. They are from the Family Gateway program, a Dallas-based organization dedicated to helping homeless families rebuild their lives by restoring dignity, stability and self-sufficiency.
"It's not like we're just giving them something," Oliver said. "They are all working really hard to better themselves and get straightened out. We just didn't want to hand out toys. That's why we chose Target. They can pick out clothing, food, anything. Target has everything you need. My wife and kids live at Target."
So they gathered at the Ballpark's Diamond Club for dinner and then were given a tour of the Christmas lights display in an Arlington neighborhood renown for its holiday displays. Santa Claus made an appearance at the dinner, and so did Ranger Captain, the club's hard-working mascot who works year-round to put a smile on children's faces.
"We just do this because it's the right thing to do," Oliver said. "We're not trying to get anything out of it. It's just good to do. You can't help everybody, but you can try and help somebody."
In 2009, Family Gateway served 116 families with 235 children in their center, 44 families with 106 children in their apartment and 25 families in their Community Transition Services. Approximately 74 percent of the children are in families that have been able to maintain continuous employment.
"A couple of years ago my wife and I came up with the idea of getting involved and giving something back to the community," Oliver said. "This is just our way of helping and doing what we can."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.