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Army of volunteers to hand out cheer
Salvation Army to distribute gifts of toys, food and clothes to 600 families today
Salvation Army volunteers Veronica Ibarra, right, and Gladys Escalante finish placing the last of the Salvation Army’s bags of toys on the gymnasium floor Friday afternoon as they prepare for distribution day today. The agency will hand out toys for more than 1,600 kids and food for more than 600 families.

Distribution day

When: 9 a.m.-2:30 p.m. today

Where: 681 Dorsey St., Gainesville



Gainesville's Salvation Army office has its largest holiday task today - hand out boxes of food to 600 families and clothes and toys to 1,600 children.

The group is seeking more volunteers to help direct traffic, sort boxes and carry items to cars.

"There are a myriad of things that can happen," said Lt. Matt Cunningham, Salvation Army Corps officer who runs the Gainesville post with his wife, Danielle. "We need help to keep everything running smoothly."

Starting at 9 a.m., families will arrive to pick up boxes of food collected from food drives held at local schools, including whole chickens donated by Fieldale Farms and Mar-Jac.

"Last year families got one food box. This year, families with more than five members can get more than one box," Cunningham said. "We've made sure we have enough so people can have a real Christmas meal with their families."

Need is higher than ever, and the Salvation Army office phones have been ringing nonstop.

"We've been receiving more than 100 phone calls a day for assistance," he said. "I've received e-mails from people who have gone to our website and are in need. It's overwhelming at some times to see how many people are in need this Christmas season, and people are still asking if it's too late to sign up."

Families who didn't make the list can still sign up on for the next week. The group is helping 1,600 children this year, which is about the same number as last year.

"It went up just a small amount, but that's mostly because we're running out of space," he said. "We're already looking for somebody to donate a warehouse for us to expand and use next November and December."

The office began taking applications for the food boxes in October and put up trees for community and church members to pick up children's wish lists in November.

After gifts start coming in during the week of Thanksgiving, Salvation Army workers lined the floors of the gym, mapping out a space for each family. This week, the group had to take the phones off the hook to get ready for today's event.

"It's amazing to see these families you know and see their appreciation when they look at you," said Lt. Lisa Cunningham, who is organizing the giveaway.

"They aren't able to provide for their children, and we don't want any child to go without Christmas and have to go back to school and say ‘nothing' when their friends ask what they got."

Salvation Army employees ask parents not to bring children to the pickup so they won't see the presents, but the gifts are handed out in black bags just in case.

"Our big goal is that the children don't have to know that the presents came from the Salvation Army," she said. "They can come from the parents or Santa, but it's up to the parents to decide what they will do with the toys."

After last week's incident involving a bell ringer who took off with a kettle, apron and funds from the group's station

at the Oakwood Walmart, Salvation Army officials are trying to move forward.

"We haven't recovered our equipment, but we're trying to put it behind us," Matt Cunningham said.

"We met with someone a few days ago who donated $300 anonymously to make up for what we lost, and we're very grateful."

Collections are up this year at the red kettles across the county, and Cunningham hopes people will keep giving.

"The donations are doing well. Our big prayer is that the weather will stay mild. We only put out 10 of 25 kettles on Thursday," he said. "The mail collections are also doing OK, but as the phone calls are increasing, even if we're doing better than last year, it's tough. We're receiving more calls than the staff ever remembers, and some have been here 14 years."


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