Angel Tree tags on the Salvation Angel Tree in The Mall at Johnson City. Tony Duncan/Johnson City Press
Kenny Ellis has been involved at every level it seems when it comes to The Salvation Army’s Angel Tree Program.
Started in 1979 in Lynchburg, Va., the program matches donors with children from qualified families who are unable to provide gifts and clothing to their children during the holidays. Today, Angel Tree programs can be found across the country.
For Ellis, working with Angel Tree recipients here in Johnson City — from assisting with the program’s application process to distributing presents — is something he truly appreciates.
“It was a really good feeling to sit down and talk to people, taking their applications,” he said. “I can relate to a lot of their situations.”
When his two children were younger, Ellis said he received help through the program. Raising the children on his own, Ellis said the Angel Tree program helped his kids get presents he just couldn’t afford to give them.
“They pretty much got what they wanted,” Ellis said. “There’s a lot of families out there that can’t afford Christmas or Christmas dinner. Every little bit helps. I know it helped me out in the past and I’m always willing to help anybody I can (in) any way.”
Having been on both sides of the program, Ellis feels a strong connection with those being helped each year.
“I know a few of them, quite a few of them, that come through there,” he said. “It makes you feel kind of different, I guess, being on the other side of the table — but not better than them.”
Staying involved with The Salvation Army over the years as a church youth leader and volunteer, Ellis also drives a church van on Sundays. He is often accompanied by his grandson, Joshua, 2, who lives with and is cared for by Ellis.
“It’s just me and him,” Ellis said. “He helps me as much as I help him.”
But working in the remodeling business, winter can be slow as far as income for Ellis. So this year, in addition to volunteering with the Angel Tree program, Ellis will again seek assistance from it to help him give Joshua a merrier Christmas.
“He wouldn’t have as good of a Christmas without the Angel Tree, I know that,” Ellis said. “I hope he gets what he wants.”
Capt. Fallyn Garrison, corps officer at the West Walnut Street post in Johnson City, and her husband, Nick, spend months preparing for the Angel Tree program.
“We actually start in July by finding locations that we’ll be able to distribute all of the gifts from (at) the end of December for the families,” Garrison said. “By August, we start advertising to the schools (to find children needing the assistance), getting flyers out so that they know that these dates are coming up.”
Applications are due in October in order to have enough processing time. Angel tickets are then printed for each child, listing his or her clothing size, wish list and other needs. In November, those angel tickets are hung on holiday trees set up throughout the Johnson City region for community members to pluck off and “adopt” the children for the holidays.
Approximately 2,827 children are in need of community help this year through the program, with several hundred angels still awaiting adoption, Garrison said.
“Every year we see the need growing more and more. We see it all throughout the year through our social service office and through our food bank and through our shelter,” she said. “We expected it to grow and so we just brace ourselves and know that the community will step up and support (the program) like they do all throughout the rest of the year. We panic a little, but we’ll be OK.”
A minimum of one outfit and three toys is gifted to each kid in the program, but people are welcome to provide more — or less, Garrison said.
“If they can’t do a whole angel, they could always go out and purchase an outfit, a set of pajamas, a bag of socks or an extra toy and bring it us and we can make sure it goes to a child who needs it,” she said. “My hope is that all of the angels will be adopted.”
As for Garrison, the program isn’t just about giving families material things.
“My husband said during our kickoff that joy is one of those things that everybody needs during the Christmas season. My hope is that it brings joy to all participants, whether they’re the ones who are giving or the ones who are receiving,” she said. “To be able to provide that joy, not only to the kids, but to the parents as well, is a big plus for me. That’s what keeps me going.”
For more information on The Salvation Army and the Angel Tree Program, visit www.paradisedivision.org/johnsoncity.