Fuzzy arms of teddy bears poked through the green mesh bags stuffed with activity kits, crayons, baby dolls, building blocks, toy firetrucks, superhero figurines and a pink hobby horse. Representing the Christmas wishes of local children, more than 500 of the present-filled bags covered the gym at the Salvation Army’s Decatur site.
“This is one of the best days of the year. There is so much joy and happiness. For one day, you get to be Santa Claus,” said Alex Davison, the Salvation Army of Decatur’s social services director.
Thanks to hundreds of volunteer “Santa Clauses,” thousands of children and adults in Morgan, Lawrence and Limestone counties will receive gifts this Christmas.
The outreach efforts organized by more than a dozen nonprofit groups, churches, schools and first responders will reach children from low-income families, adults with mental health disorders, the homeless and residents of assisted living facilities.
“This is such a blessing,” said Emily Smith, who picked up gifts from The Salvation Army for her two children. “In our family, we don’t do Santa gifts. We do God gifts. We want to concentrate on the real reason for the season. My children will know that these gifts are a blessing from God.”
As a line of cars snaked past the Salvation Army while parents, grandparents, older siblings and guardians collected the Christmas surprises, a chorus of “Merry Christmas” and “Feliz Navidad” sounded from the volunteers.
“The families have extreme gratitude and happiness because they do not have to worry about Christmas anymore. We are able to ease one of their worries. That’s a great gift to give,” said Lt. Richard Watts, who oversees the Decatur chapter with his wife, Donna Watts.
For Christy Hernandez, who attends church at The Salvation Army, volunteering for gift distribution day is a holiday tradition — one she passed down to her 18-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter.
“There is no place I’d rather be,” Hernandez said. “I started volunteering to hand out gifts when I was 15. I’m 37 now. I love helping others and doing the most good I can. It’s a blessing to be a blessing.”
Along with presents, each family received a holiday food box containing a whole chicken, canned vegetables, dried beans, macaroni and cheese, dried fruit, apple sauce and almond milk.
The Salvation Army served as a clearinghouse in Decatur to ensure no one received assistance from more than one agency. Few families applied at more than one site this season, Watts said.
Combined, the Salvation Army, Committee on Church Cooperation, Volunteer Center of Morgan County and the Neighborhood Christian Center collected gifts for 2,000 children.
Outside of the unified effort, many agencies organized programs to address specific needs.
The Volunteer Center of Morgan County bought presents for 60 teenagers and distributed more than 900 Holiday Hope Chests to children, Hands Across Decatur provided Christmas for 55 homeless men and women, Hartselle-based Feeding Families of Alabama ensured 177 children from low-income families received gifts, the Mental Health Association in Morgan County collected items for 160 adults with serious mental illness and the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Fairview the Grace Place hosted a Christmas party and presented gifts to dozens of children and adults with special needs.
There is the Moulton-based Muscle Shoals Baptist Association, which provided Christmas gifts for more than 400 children, the Athens-based Lincoln-Bridgeforth Park Committee, which distributed presents to 150 children and the Decatur-based F.A.C.E.S. of Morgan County, which collected presents for local foster children.
At the Salvation Army, holiday outreach programs extended beyond the well-known Angel Trees and Red Kettle campaign.
“The Salvation Army donated 640 Christmas cards, which we handed out to nursing home residents,” volunteer Tracy Murcks said. “Those simple little cards brought some of the residents to tears because they don’t have family that visits them.”
Taking on the role of Santa Claus, providing presents and cards to individuals in need, were police officers and firefighters, teachers, principals and counselors, pastors, business owners, grandparents, school groups and teenagers.
“This is what Christmas is all about — helping other people out and spreading joy and happiness. This is Christmas,” Murcks said.