COLUMBIA — Bags full of brightly colored packages filled the rooms and hallways of Trinity Presbyterian Church on Thursday morning as a group of volunteers sorted, hauled and loaded the goodies into cars.
This year marked the 27th annual Christmas program at the Voluntary Action Center. Community agencies, organizations and individual sponsors provided presents, household supplies and food for 1,158 local families.
The Christmas program is the center's largest annual event. Preparation begins in September and applications for assistance are accepted in October. The center chooses families based on need or recommendations from local community groups.
Project Director Marissa Todd, who is often called "Christmas Lady" by her colleagues this time of year, is in her second year planning the program. Even though the preparation consumes nearly a fourth of her year, Todd said she hasn't tired of the work yet.
“It’s all so worth it to see all of the people come in and drop off the stuff but it’s just as fun to see the people who get to pick it up," she said.
Sponsors receive wish lists from families to whom they are assigned. These lists specifically mention children and disabled or elderly family members along with their ages, genders and interests or needs. The sponsors are also requested to donate money for the center to provide vouchers that can be used at local Hy-Vee stores to help purchase holiday meals.
“I’m so overwhelmed at all the goodness of people,” said first-year volunteer Mary Patton. “This community, it’s just unbelievable we can come together and help so many people.”
Patton said she is already on the list to volunteer next year.
“I can’t wait to do this again," she said. "I’ll be there at their other events too. All it takes is my time, and I can definitely provide that.”
Most rooms in the church were filled with wrapped presents, but a few rooms were set aside for other purposes.
One room was set up with new toys, clothing and games donated from local businesses and individuals. If sponsors chose to provide gift cards instead of hand-picked items for their selected families, family members could shop for items to wrap and put under their own trees.
Christmas trees were also available for free, thanks to a donation from a local grower.
Marie Grierson has worked for five years in the “freebie room," where waiting families could browse gently used donations such as baby clothes, children’s books and winter coats. These items are free and are not part of the prepackaged sponsored donations. Grierson said she likes working in the room because it’s an unexpected bonus for families who might need a certain item and find it in the pile.
“It really helps a lot of people who need it," Grierson said. “We really need to thank Scholastic and all the people who helped donate what’s in this room. I’ve already seen a lot of good stuff leave today.”
The volunteers weren’t the only ones excited about this year's event.
Britney Moorehead is a mother of four. Without the center and her sponsors, she said, Christmas would have been a little more difficult this year.
“I’m really thankful," Moorehead said. "It means a lot because my kids can have a Christmas, which otherwise they would not have after I paid bills and bought food.”
Moorehead said this year the most popular item on her children's wish lists was a bike.
There is still time to contribute. Toys, books and clothing donations will still be accepted from 8:30 to 4:30 on Monday and Tuesday at Trinity Presbyterian Church, 1600 W. Rollins Road. All donations are tax deductible.