Christmas will be a lot merrier for about 430 families this year, thanks to the efforts of area charitable Christmas programs Sharing the Spirit and the Sears/Mountain View Christmas Drive.
The volunteer programs collect toys, clothing and food for children and families in need during the Christmas season. Both programs wrapped up last week by distributing the gifts to their grateful recipients.
Distribution for the Sharing the Spirit program took place Wednesday through Friday at the Salvation Army warehouse on Kenai Spur Highway. Volunteers spent Sunday through Tuesday collecting and sorting the donations, putting together food boxes and setting up a "Toy and Joy" shop -- a new addition to the program this year.
Each recipient family in the Sharing the Spirit program was sent a letter with a specific time and day for them to come to the warehouse and collect their food and presents. Once at the warehouse, parents were taken through the Toy and Joy shop and allowed to pick out presents for their children.
Sharing the Spirit volunteers also visited Wildwood Correction-al Facility this year to give inmates a chance to give Christmas presents to their children. Envoys Craig and Jeannie Fanning of the Salvation Army enjoyed this part of the program the best this year, Craig Fanning said.
"It's a chance for some fathers, and at other places we have had mothers, to really focus on their child," Craig Fanning said. "For some of those guys, this was the first time they had ever thought about getting a toy for their child -- usually the wives and mothers handle that."
Sharing the Spirit provided food and presents for 372 families this year, which means the program helped 1,022 people, Fanning said. That's about how many people the program provided for last year.
"It looks like most everybody that needed help got it," Fanning said, referring to the people who applied for the Sharing the Spirit program. "It really was a very good program for several families, and it just touched my heart this year."
As always, Sharing the Spirit volunteers needed to purchase some items, especially gifts for teen-agers, with money from donations to provide presents for everyone who needed them, Fanning said. But there were still toys left over on Friday, so it seems that no one went without.
"I can't tell you how rewarding it is to talk to people that say 'we really would have had nothing,'" Fanning said. "And there are those families that try every way they can to give their kids some kind of Christmas, and if it weren't for this program, they wouldn't have a place to turn to."
The Sears/Mountain View Christmas Drive provides a similar service for needy families with kids attending Sears and Mountain View Elementary Schools and Kenai Middle School. Program volunteers send out letters to all families in those schools asking if they need help or would like to offer their help in the program. Every family that signs up for the program receives a Christmas basket with food and two toys, a new outfit -- including socks and underwear -- hats and mittens and any needed winter gear for every child in the family.
The program takes donations from area businesses, organizations and community members to provide the baskets for families. This year the Sears/Mountain View Christmas Drive gave baskets to 60 families, including 164 children. Kim Remsen, a substitute secretary at Sears Elementary, and her committee of three other volunteers did most of the shopping for items on their weekends and after work. The purchased and donated items were sorted by volunteers in Remsen's garage and distributed at the schools Dec. 16.
I just love (the program)," Remsen said. "I see a need for it here at school. I spend a lot of time at school and see kids that would probably go without if it weren't for this program."
Remsen has been involved in the Sears/Mountain View Christmas drive for 11 years. The program was started 20 years ago by Karen Mahurin, a secretary at Sears Elementary School, and Ginnie Maesner, the principal of Sears at the time.
Mahurin got the idea for the program after working as the part-time nurse at the school one year after Christmas and tending to one of the students.
"I said 'did you have a good Christmas?' And they said 'no, daddy went to jail, and Santa could not find our house,'" Mahurin said. "So of course I cried, and we decided that we would take care of a couple families ourselves so that wouldn't happen again."
With help from the parent teacher organization, Remsen, school employees and others, the program has expanded over the years to operate at the three Kenai schools.
"We wanted to do something for our own Sears families so our children would have Christmas, not necessarily because of what a parent did or didn't do, but because no child should go without Christmas," Mahurin said. "I think it's really important that the spirit of Christmas is giving and the spirit of Christmas is for children. A child should not have to say 'Santa couldn't find my house.'"
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