In this troublesome year, with so many people out of work, facing the threat of eviction, and worried about getting sick, a Christmas without gifts would have been too much to bear.
Working separately but with the same mission, the Louisa County Santa Council and Peach Grove Baptist Church organized volunteers this month as they do at the close of every year to make it a happy holiday for families.
The Santa Council, which has been collecting donations and distributing gifts for more than three decades, tinkered with their process this time to make sure it could proceed safely amid the pandemic. The basic building block was the same as always – people eager to give something back.
“You feel good doing it,” said Steve Falkenthal, who volunteers through the Louisa chapter of the Knights of Columbus. “It’s helped me understand what it might have been like to be less fortunate.”
Like each volunteer during the days of distribution the second week of December, Falkenthal was assigned a specific role. As families pulled up in their cars at Mineral Baptist Church to pick up gifts, he rolled out a dolly weighed down with a turkey, potatoes and apples. Another person was assigned to retrieve a giant bag of toys and clothing from the church gym. The car doors on either side opened and the volunteers carefully shoved the gifts in.
Boxes of food were separated and marked depending on the number of family members. Every family received a first aid kit, funded through a Walmart grant. Each child got books and a hat. For babies, there were handmade blankets. With the pandemic in mind, families also received homespun masks.
The council assigned one person to be in charge of screening volunteers for the coronavirus. No one could handle gifts or interact with recipient families until they passed by the COVID check-in table.
Families who weren’t able to pick up gifts at the church weren’t left out: Council volunteers made 30 home deliveries. In all, there were 450 applications this year for assistance, including 83 at the Epworth Manor senior-living facility.
A week after the council completed its distribution, Peach Grove Baptist Church volunteers gathered at Betty J. Queen Intergenerational Center, together with counterparts from Union Baptist and Mt. Gilliam (Old Site) Baptist churches, to welcome families into the Great Room to collect one toy for each child. Participants were also able to pick out clothes and shoes.
In a normal year, Peach Grove members would march in the Christmas parade through downtown Louisa, handing out wrapped gifts to children watching from the sidelines. This time, the presents were left unwrapped and parents were invited to choose the appropriate toys.
This is the sixth or seventh year the church has organized a toy drive, said Pastor Sherman Hudson. At the end of the Christmas season, Hudson’s wife Davora goes to store sales to find good deals, then keeps everything stored until the next holiday season approaches. Hudson estimates the value of all the donations of toys and clothes to be several thousand dollars.
The church had fewer volunteers this year, as its membership skews older and many didn’t want to take any risk of exposure to the virus. Still, about 20 people participated.
“We know people are hurting,” Hudson said, “and we’re just glad we’re able to have this and to help people.”