Shiny red and green packages clad with ribbons and bows slowly filled up the bed of Virgi Martin’s rusty pickup.
“God bless you!” she said over her shoulder as volunteers finished loading the gifts and wished her a merry Christmas.
Martin is a single mother of three. For her, Christmas began Thursday at Trinity Presbyterian Church.
Martin and hundreds of low-income families collected gifts all day from the Voluntary Action Center’s annual Christmas program.
“There is a great need, and people meet that need,” said volunteer Donna Murray. “The fortunate help the unfortunate. Everyone is like a family looking out for each other.”
The Voluntary Action Center has been collecting gifts for needy families since 1983. Those who are eligible include families with children and incomes below 150 percent of the poverty line and people who are elderly or disabled.
This year, 1,240 families were adopted by sponsors including individual families and businesses.
“Once you get that letter hearing you were sponsored, a huge weight is lifted off your shoulders,” Martin said.
Families sign up in October and submit their wish lists for Christmas. All the families are adopted by Thanksgiving. The families do not know who sponsors them, and sponsors only know the first names of family members.
“It might sound silly, but I asked for wash rags, towels and sheets for myself,” Martin said. “The rest is for my kids. I just want to make sure all three of them have something to wake up to on Christmas.”
Sponsors spend a minimum of $50 per family member with about $10 going towards food and $40 to clothing and toys. Sponsors usually buy household items as well.
Oleta Edwards has been a volunteer for 20 years and has sponsored families for five years.
“Sponsoring shows you that you may not feel like you have everything, but after adopting you realize how much more you have and how fortunate you are to be able to share,” Edwards said.
The Christmas program has become a tradition for those involved, whether giving or receiving.
“I have been coming here since my kids were in Pampers,” said Bridget Jones, a single parent whose children are now 17, 15 and 10. “I wouldn’t know what to do without this. It is such a blessing.”
Andrea and Kevin Kearns have their own tradition. Their family has volunteered for six years.
“I have been doing this since I was 4,” 10-year-old Lauren Kearns said. “I like seeing all the people being happy and getting all the presents.”
Andrea and Kevin Kearns said this is a good experience for their family and a reminder of what Christmas is about.
“Some kids don’t realize how fortunate they are and don’t realize that some people don’t get anything for Christmas,” Andrea Kearns said. “You can get wrapped up in the social stuff of the holiday. Some people might not get a turkey dinner, and we worry about what appetizer to bring to the company party.”
Volunteers like the Kearns and Edwards families are among about 100 others helping this year.
“The volunteers come from all aspects of life,” said Cindy Mustard, director of the Voluntary Action Center. “People like to volunteer and give of their time. It makes them feel good.”
The vast range of volunteers adds to the success of the program. Senior citizens, college students, young children, families and even teenagers from Division Youth Services come to help out each year.
“Some can afford to give gifts; we help with the labor,” said J.D. Kemper of Division Youth Services. “These are kids who have all committed crimes, and this is a chance for them to give back to the community and show that they are nice people.”
For volunteers, it is the feeling of helping others and of seeing smiling faces and tears of gratitude that keep them coming back year after year.
“It’s so neat to see the people’s faces, especially when they weren’t expecting anything,” Andrea Kearns said. “One lady I helped just started crying because of all she received. The gifts were just beyond her imagination. To just see one of those makes it all worth it.”
For those receiving, it is not only a need but also a feeling of generosity that keeps them coming back.
“I get so excited seeing my kids’ faces when they open their presents,” Felicia Mitchell said. “There’s such a caring feeling here. Someone’s out there helping us, and I’m so thankful.”