Christmas, to whatever degree you celebrate, usually comes down to children. From the celebration of a holy birth to the generosity of a jolly ole elf, it is that excitement in the eyes of children that brings life to our Christmas spirit.
In truth, however, there are many parents and caregivers who worry more about the looks of disappointment in the eyes of their children when circumstances don’t allow them to fulfill any of their Christmas wishes.
The ladies of the Blount County Junior Service League are all about replacing that disappointment with Christmas joy. Their mission begins early each new year and cumulates the third week of December with “Packing Day.”
Gathering in the gym of the National Guard Armory on Monday, Dec. 14, JSL members can look around at the fruits of their labor -- the pancakes served, the runners sponsored, the hours at University of Tennessee football games selling concessions. The results are Toys for Blount County, a gymnasium filled with them. They are one step away from making Christmas dreams come true.
As JSL members pack boxes, Angie Kirby sees a family. This is Kirby’s last year in her five-year commitment as an active JSL member.
“I would not miss it for the world,” she said of Packing Day. “I think for me this is what I look forward to all year long. Each box represents a family. This is my favorite part of JSL.”
Amy Habart is a first-year JSL member, but it didn’t take her long to appreciate the meaning of Packing Day. “There are a lot of children who don’t have Christmas. It’s important to come together to help out. You never know who it could be,” she said. “One year it could be you or a neighbor a family member. If you don’t help when you can, there may not be anyone to help you.”
Toys for Blount County is the JSL’s annual year-long project to ensure less fortunate families will have Christmas presents for their children. It operates in conjunction with Empty Pantry Fund.
JSL members do fundraisers throughout the year, begin shopping in July and then in October advertise and hold a call-center at the United Way building on East Broadway Avenue where parents and caregivers phone in to apply to be a recipient.
“They call the Christmas Clearing House or they can sign up at United Way for food or food and toys as long as they have food stamps and a Social Security number, and they live in Blount County,” Laura Marsh said.
Robin Spears and Jessica Wallace are co-chairing the project this year.
“This year was we had to stop early because of the economy,” Spears said. “A lot more people signed up who had not signed up before. We had a lot of first-time callers.”
“We filled up earlier this year than ever before,” echoed Wallace. “We had a lot of people calling and saying they had never had to do this. There was a greater need because people are out of work or have had their hours cut. It’s been a hard year.”
Packing Day is an operation to behold. There are about 1,400 children being assisted by the project, which is about the same as last year, Spears said.
Spears said JSL members started setting up at the National Guard Armory on Sunday, Dec. 13. “The armory folks let us come in early so on Monday we can start packing right away. Even with their being deployed, they allowed someone to stay here.”
Spears said she and Wallace were happy to finally reach Packing Day. “I think Jessica and I are breathing easier,” she said. “It’s a huge responsibility, and we don’t want to let anyone down.”
Current and past JSL members as well as volunteers from the community poured into the armory gym, took a sheet of paper with a description of the family being helped and started pushing shopping carts around tables filled with toys categorized according to age and sex of the child.
Cathy Cate was on hand to help. “I’ve been doing this eight or nine years. When I see how fortunate my children are, I feel it’s something I need to do,” she said.
Karyn White said helping with Packing Day is a tradition of helping others. “We’ve been doing it so many years,” she said. “It’s something important we want to do.”
Sahra Tinker-Ratledge said this is her third year helping pack for Toys for Blount County. “This is my ultimate day for what Christmas means,” she said. “I don’t get any more fulfillment than this day.”
Shelly Jacques is a first year JSL member, and she said doing the packing is a way of giving back when her family has been blessed so much. “My kids have so much, and the kids we are providing toys for, this could be the only Christmas they have,” she said.
Joy Carver said she has never forgotten working Packing Day with her mother, Carolyn Forster, and helping her pick out the toys. “Now I do it as a mom. I like seeing the generations of Service League members shopping, so it’s even more special. It’s a legacy. We did it as children, and now we’re the moms. I absolutely can’t wait to bring my daughter.”
Jean Lambert said she loves participating in Packing Day for Toys for Blount County. “I’m one of the founding members of Junior Service League, and I just come every year and do this. I feel like I’m needed, and I feel good when I leave. All of my daughters are in Junior Service League.”
Kathy Howard, Lambert’s daughter, said, “This is what Christmas is all about - helping others, especially kids in need who may not have much of a Christmas.”
Morgan Lambert is another generation of Lambert’s helping out. Her husband, Jason Lambert, is Jean Lambert’s grandson, and she said she has enjoyed participating in the different stages of the effort from shopping to working the call center to doing the packing. “This is the fun part,” she said.
Amanda Painter stood with her grandmother and other relatives who have long participated in Toys for Blount County Packing Day. “It’s one of my favorite days of the year, and this is my last year, so it’s sort of bittersweet,” she said. “You get so busy actually doing the packing that you have to stop and think - 1,400 children are going to be opening presents on Christmas because of this. It makes it worth it.”
Lauren Rudd said she can’t help but think of the less fortunate at Christmas. “I just think about how much my children already have, and it breaks my heart not everyone has things. We want to do what we can to make sure everyone has a Merry Christmas.”
Bill Winn said his daughter, Amanda Painter, is president of JSL this year and he was busy shopping for a deserving youngster. “I started doing this three years ago. The members work so hard all year long putting this together, and I just enjoy doing this,” he said of volunteering.
Douglas Stewart and James Headrick work with Personal Computer Services in Louisville. PCS gives them time off to volunteer to help with the packing. “We love it,” Stewart said.
“They said it’s a lot of hard work but we have a blast,” Headrick said.
Doug Dockery with PCS wore his Santa hat as he wrapped presents. PCS provides boxes and tape. “This is just something I enjoy doing,” he said. “It’s great, and I look forward to doing it.”
Lauren Lloyd said she participated in Packing Day when her mother, Connie Berry, was in JSL 15 years ago. “This is the reason why you are in Service League, packing it up and seeing their faces when you deliver it,” she said. “I have a 10-month-old, and it’s especially meaningful since I have my own.”
Miranda Reagan said she wanted to make sure others had a good Christmas. “I just can not imagine seeing any of my kids not have a Christmas,” she said. “I love kids, and I want them to have a real good Christmas.”
Sarah Overholt Stinnett said she did Packing Day when she was little with her late mother, Connie Overholt. This is her first Christmas without her mother. “This is my contribution to her memory,” she said.
Jessica Wallace said JSL members understand the importance of the day. “We’re all blessed, and it’s so important to give back,” she said.