‘We get to see their faces light up.’ Salvation Army makes season bright for families in need

Financial troubles can put a damper on the Christmas spirit for many families.

That’s where the Salvation Army of Manatee County steps in.

The charity organization mobilizes two programs each year that collect gifts for children whose families are living below the poverty level. In total, the services will reach 2,620 kids this year, according to Kelly French, director of community relations and development.

Donors can pick individual children to shop for through the Angel Tree program or buy for an entire family of kids through the Adopt-A-Family program.

After the presents come in, staff and volunteers get to work organizing them into bags. The bags go into boxes marked with children’s names. It takes an entire gym and multiple classrooms to hold all of the gifts.

rb_salvation army_03
Kelly French, left, and Georgette Franklin, with Salvation Army of Manatee County, inspect bags of presents before parents arrive to pick them up. Ryan Ballogg rballogg@bradenton.com

Many kids get everything they ask for and more.

If a bag is a little bit lean or one sibling gets more gifts than another volunteers make up the difference with extra toys from a room designated as “Santa’s Toy Shop.”

Staff and volunteers agree that the best part of the experience is seeing the reactions of kids and parents as they receive the gifts.

“My favorite part is when I get to assist with the gift giving and we get to see their faces light up,” French said.

Dave Marshall has been volunteering with Salvation Army for 17 years.

“It’s here to say we don’t care who are, we don’t care where you come from. If you have a need, we are here to meet that need,” Marshall said.

Marshall also says he is constantly amused by the trends in toys year to year.

rb_salvation army_04
Parents line up to pick up Christmas gifts for their kids outside of Salvation Army of Manatee County on Tuesday. Ryan Ballogg rballogg@bradenton.com

This was Georgette Franklin’s first year working on the toy drives. Franklin organized registrations and pick-up dates for the programs.

“It’s been exciting. I’ve had so much fun,” Franklin said. “It’s so rewarding to put a smile to a child’s face when they pick up the gifts.”

On Tuesday, recipients of the Angel Tree program started lining up around 7 a.m. to pick up gifts for their children. Some had young children at their sides.

About 25 volunteers were briefed just before the doors opened at 9 a.m., and then the pick-up queue began.

French estimated that it would take five or six hours to get all of the gifts into the hands of families.

Volunteers led parents to the gym with shopping carts to collect the bags of presents.

“It’s wonderful seeing the expression on people’s faces — that in that bag is Christmas for their children,” Marshall said.

They will do it all over again on Thursday when recipients of the Adopt-A-Family program come in.

rb_salvation army_01
In addition to bags full of gifts, each child age 3-5 received a unique teddy bear. Some of them had hand-sewn clothes. Ryan Ballogg rballogg@bradenton.com

Need seems to be on the rise in Manatee County. This year, about more 800 children were registered for the drives.

Occasionally, though, a parent comes in to pick up gifts for the last time.

One woman who has participated in the program for several years told French that she is finishing her degree and will likely no longer need the holiday help.

“That’s a wonderful thing to hear,” French said.