COLUMBIA — A line of nearly 100 people filtered through the halls of the Voluntary Action Center on Tuesday morning hoping to come away with an early holiday gift. Some had been in line for 12 hours.
"If it weren't for the Voluntary Action Center, they would have had some really skimpy Christmases," resident Anna Tiffany said about her four children.
The Voluntary Action Center provides assistance for families in need during the holidays. Qualifying Boone County residents may sign up at the Voluntary Action Center at 9 a.m. October 15, 16, 19, 20 or 22. Working parents may sign up at 6 p.m. Wednesday and on Oct. 21.
Tiffany has enrolled in the organization's holiday-assistance program on and off for 20 years, and now she is helping her daughter, Cindy Cotten, 24, apply for the program.
This year, the Voluntary Action Center is providing its 26th annual Christmas Program, which anonymously pairs families in need with volunteer giftgivers. During October, the center is accepting applications from low-income families in Boone County.
Sign-ups will continue at 9 a.m. on Oct. 15, 16, 19, 20 and 22, at the Voluntary Action Center, 800 N. Providence Road, Suite 220. Working parents may also sign up at the center at 6 p.m. Wednesday and Oct. 21.
During sign-up days, long lines are expected to form outside the center. About 80 numbers are given out each morning, and some late-comers are asked to return another day. The first-come, first-serve arrangement creates a sense of competition among some of the people in line.
Last year, the Voluntary Action Center served more than 1,200 families — or 4,000 people — through the program. In partnership with nine other agencies, the center expects to serve between 1,200 and 1,300 households this year, program coordinator Marissa Todd said.
Interested participants must show identification for all people in their households, proof of all income, proof of a Boone County address and gift ideas and clothing sizes for family members.
"The sponsor pledges to provide food for the holidays, along with at least one new gift for each child, elderly or disabled person," said Cindy Mustard, the center's director, in a news release.
Individual and group sponsors may apply by calling the Voluntary Action Center at 874-2273. If an interested sponsor is unable to provide for an entire family, he or she may donate individual toys, games and clothing or team up with a local business, church and other group.
The Voluntary Action Center plans to match families before Thanksgiving, and sponsors will drop off their wrapped gifts in December at Trinity Presbyterian Church, 1600 W. Rollins Road.
"It's impressive to see what Columbia does," said Lea Evans, Voluntary Action Center board member and Christmas Program volunteer coordinator. "The coolest thing is the bike room."
The bike room is the drop-off place for any bicycles that sponsors purchase for their adopted families. The sponsorsare not obligated to purchase bicycles on the wish lists, but Evans said it's amazing to see how many are actually purchased.
"It's a good program," Tiffany said. "People need to know about it."