Salvation Army Angel Tree and Johnson City Press Christmas Box participants in Washington and Unicoi counties went rushing home with their treasures Tuesday as volunteers for the sister holiday projects handed over holiday food for more than 1,100 low-income families and seniors in need and clothing, bikes, trikes and toys of all varieties for 1,872 children who were at risk of going without.
Tuesday’s holiday giving at the Appalachian Fairgrounds in Gray was the second in as many days for the sister holiday projects, following up on Monday’s distribution in Carter County and all but completing this year’s record outreach to more 2,700 children and approximately 2,000 households in need.
“We’re going to get them all out today and we’ll have only the spillover left on Wednesday,” Salvation Army Commander Major Gary Elliott said as volunteers carted the Angel Tree gifts out of the fair’s Commercial Building No. 1, loaded them into the recipients’ automobiles and directed them to Building No. 2 for their Christmas Box groceries.
Directing cars toward the food box pickup bay, Art Powers, president of the Christmas Box board of directors and publisher of the Johnson City Press, observed, “I do know those boxes are a lot heavier than last year and that’s a good thing. And everyone has been very appreciative.”
Still working to make up the lag in community donations needed to meet the projected $53,000 cost of this year’s Christmas Box food, Powers said, “We hope the money will still be coming in for a while.”
Inside the buildings, the giving operations proved to be very much a family affair as many of the small army of veteran volunteers who make the distribution happen each year brought along friends, neighbors and multiple generations of their families to help.
Powers brought his next door neighbors Mike and Fran Rathburn to help assemble and load the 65-pound food boxes and the10-pound turkeys, 7-pound hams, 10 pounds of potatoes, 3 pounds of onions and four dozen dinner rolls that came with them. “This is something we wanted to do,” Mike said, laughing as he and Fran made another grocery cart relay through the assembly line.
Ron Tipton, who took over as the newspaper’s Christmas Box coordinator following this year’s unexpected death of his friend and co-worker John Castle, brought a couple of well-seasoned veterans to help, his wife Rhonda and 17-year-old son Lucas, who was marking his 10th anniversary in the distribution.
Reporting on the progress, Tipton said, “Smooth as silk. No snafus. We’ve got plenty of help. Everyone seems to be in real good spirits and I’ve heard a lot of good comments from the volunteers and the participants. On the fundraising, he said, “The funding is still a little short, in case anybody wants to help tie up the ends.”
While Castle’s absence was deeply felt on Tuesday, the abundance of volunteers who came in his honor was impressive and included his brother Bobby Castle and the youngest volunteer at the fairgrounds, Castle’s 10-year-old great-nephew David Elzea.
Kathy Ferguson, a friend of the Castle family, was there to mark her own family’s fifth annual Christmas Box distribution.
And from the Press, friends and admirers carrying on Castle’s giving spirit included Tom Harris, the newspaper’s immediate past advertising director two days into retirement and back at work for the Christmas Box; Jane Rodifer and her son Nick; Tracy Percell and her daughter Taylor; Terry McKeehan and her daughter Tammy; Jeff Birchfield and his son Adam; and about a dozen other staff members who gave all or most of their day to Castle’s favorite project.
In the Angel Tree building, the Salvation Army staff was equally well supported by volunteers and by a final round of gifts from the community that lead volunteer Mattie Mullins said nicely filled the packages of a surprising number of Angel Tree children whose gifts were never turned in.
With a crew of about six office staff and a dozen community service workers, the state department of Probation and Parole was back for its 20th annual Angel Tree distribution. And the men of the Washington County Detention Center Work Crew who carried the lion’s share of labor for both projects since the assembly began on Dec. 1, were back to see it through to completion.
For the Angel Tree children who were forgotten, Mullins said the folks at Hooters called the Salvation Army on Monday to ask if there were any final needs, then showed up with a load of $800 worth of board games for older children. And from the staff at JD Squared manufacturing, who Mullins said had already delivered several truckloads of toys for the Angel Tree, a similar last-minute inquiry was followed by the company’s delivery of about $2,000 in large girls’ clothing.
Salvation Army Major Patty Elliott said she brought her mother Mattie McCain to witness the distribution. And when her mother told her she was impressed by the efficiency of the operation and large number of volunteers involved, she told her mother, ‘Yes, without our volunteers, we couldn’t do any of it.’’’
Before leaving the Angel Tree building with gifts for her 8- and 9-year old daughters, a mother named Christina stood at the exit and told the volunteers around her what their work had meant. “I am truly very blessed,” she said. “You guys have helped me the past couple of years and I hope this will be my last. I’m going to have my degree in forensics and criminal justice and I’m going to be applying for jobs. That hasn’t been so easy with two kids and I feel blessed to have had these programs here so my kids could have nice Christmases.”
For those who may still wish to contribute, tax deductible donations to the Johnson City Press Christmas Box of Northeast Tennessee may be made by mail to P.O. Box 1387, Johnson City, TN 37605. The newspaper covers all administrative costs of the project so that 100 percent of all monetary gifts go to the purchase of food. For more information about the Christmas Box, call Ron Tipton at the Johnson City Press at 929-3111, ext. 302.