The spirit of giving is most evident during the holidays in these stories of Kentuckians whose mission is to make sure no child goes forgotten by Santa nor does a family go hungry at the Thanksgiving dinner table.
One family, two churches, and 400 children
It is late afternoon on a Sunday in mid-December when the rumble of the trucks is heard. The crowd, gathered in a church parking lot in London, springs into action as the convoy pulls in and parks: 800 gifts—sweaters, dresses, coats, games, toys, dolls, bicycles, and more—will be unloaded by the arriving contingent, all members of Mary, Queen of the Holy Rosary Church in Lexington, and those waiting in the lot, members of St. William Catholic Church.
All have gathered to help fulfill a promise made to one man, Daniel Lucas, who rode in with the convoy.
"My dad made my sister and me promise that if something happens to him we will keep up this tradition," says Vickie Nicholson, daughter of the family patriarch. "He wanted to make sure that Mary, Queen continued to help the children of Laurel County even if he wasn't here. He knows the children really need help and does not want them to be forgotten."
The tradition? Collect, sort, and disperse Christmas gifts to children in need. This Lucas family tradition began in association with Come-Unity Cooperative Care in Laurel County in 1978. Family members in Lexington and London would collect enough gently used toys for 20 to 30 children. As the program evolved over the years, each child would receive one new toy and one new clothing item. When the organization was no longer able to continue the program, Nicholson got her church (St. William) involved. But the story—and the number of children served and the organizations involved—continued to grow.
"Each year, we ask the Family Resource Centers in each of the Laurel County schools for the names of up to 400 children," Nicholson says. "Each child gets two tags—one for clothing and one for a toy. The ladies at my church help do all the tags."
At that point, 375 tag sets are taken by Nicholson's husband, Shelby, to Lexington and Mary, Queen of the Holy Rosary, the church the Lucas family has attended for decades, for placement on its Giving Tree.
"These church members have always taken a large number of the children to buy gifts for," says Nicholson. "They started out with 200 children and now take 375. I think it's great that they care for children in a different community. A lot of the church members look forward to the program every year, because they have no family or children to buy for."
While Nicholson spearheads the program in London, her sister, Jeannine Tharp, organizes the Lexington operation. Some 15 or more Lucas family members, including the sisters' parents, cousins, nieces, and nephews, plus lots of church members on both ends as well as Toys for Tots, lend their helping hands.
Back at the church lot, members hustle back and forth from trucks to church hall to offload the holiday booty. Inside the hall, sorting commences immediately, with clothing and most of the wrapped toys going into their respective piles, organized by school, before being tucked into individual trash bags later.
"A lot of the families bring their children with them to pick up the gifts," she says. "This is the reason each child's gift is in a large trash bag. The parents can choose to hide the gifts and make them a surprise if they want.
"We can't hide the bikes, though."
Nicholson recalls one particular family that came in several years ago to pick up their gifts. The couple had three children and the father was carrying the youngest.
"I noticed the little boy had no shoes on, just socks. I asked the dad about it and was told that they could not afford both shoes and a coat, and they thought a coat was more important. The dad said he could carry the child wherever he needed to go.
"We asked the family to come back to us in two hours. The volunteers from St. William took up a real fast collection and we sent someone to get shoes and more clothes for all three children. The parents cried when they returned two hours later."
Lots of goodwill and spirited conversation, plenty of hugs and smiles, and more than a few tears accompany the sorting and giving at St. William among volunteers and families alike.
"The smiles on the families' faces are the reason we do the program," says Nicholson. "We thank them for giving us the opportunity to help them."
Ten siblings, a fire department, and one generous community
When participation in the annual Christmas program at the local fire department began to dwindle, one woman decided to rev it back up to ensure that every child in town received gifts for Christmas—or at least as many children that showed up for the event. Gayle Montgomery Gregory has, in just a handful of years, ramped up donations and distributions for Auburn's reinvigorated Christmas for Kids event, held in December at the Auburn Fire Department following the annual Auburn Christmas parade, to say nothing of attendance.
"This had been a big event in our town for many years, and now it just keeps getting bigger and bigger," says Paula Montgomery Rust. "As a member of the family and also a part of the community, I've been going to this fire station for as long as I can remember, including as a child myself to sit on Santa's lap for a bag of candy."
From initially giving out toys herself, to drawing in her nine sisters and four brothers, then to involving a generous and supportive community, Gregory nurtured the program back to life. Five years later, it is so robust that, by August, she already had enough toys for about 200 children, including six bicycles donated by the local Walmart.
During Christmas for Kids, Montgomery siblings pass out bags with small toys, stuffed animals, notebooks, pencils, coloring books, and crayons. The firemen provide bags of fruit and candy for Santa Claus to give to the children. A meal of hot dogs, barbecue, and potato chips is served, and soft drinks, milk, cookies, and cake are passed out. There are drawings for big toys, including bicycles (10 were given away last year), TVs, video games systems, and more.
"Last year, we fed 700 or so people—about 300 kids and their parents and grandparents," says Gregory. "Every child gets a brand-new toy, a value of at least $10. This is in addition to the bag of toys. We have music and everyone pitches in.
"If it weren't for the generous people in the community and their donations, we couldn't do it."
Besides private donations of toys and money, local companies contribute needed food items and stocking stuffers: Country Oven Bakery, Royal Crown Cola, Purity Dairies, Hampton Meat, and Walmart.
"I never dreamed it would end up being what it is now," says Gregory, who admits to worrying each year if they're going to have enough. "The size of the event keeps growing. The line is out the door, around City Hall and down the highway, and they just keep on coming—but we've never run out."
Not of food or toys—or help, and that includes the Montgomery siblings and the community of Auburn.
"As long as I can continue," says Gregory, "I plan to keep it up."
One teen, some neighbors, and lots of turkeys
For the past five years, a small group of teenagers in the Deerfield Hills subdivision of Elizabethtown has collected food and money and filled boxes with Thanksgiving dinner—from the turkey and potatoes to the cranberry sauce and rolls—for area needy families. The program was established by Trent Parker, a 13-year-old at the time, with a little bit of help from his mom.
"My son is an only child and I wanted him to know there are those who are less fortunate," says Laurie Parker. "This is what he came up with."
Says Trent: "My mom and dad are always about giving me life lessons and this one really hit me hard. I don't have any siblings and I need to learn how to share."
For Trent, pinpointing Thanksgiving dinner for his outreach—a holiday that invites family, friends, and, in many cases, the community at large to gather together in gratitude and fellowship and a shared meal—seemed the perfect choice.
"My family has never had to worry about food for Thanksgiving, and I know many families don't have that luxury. I thought it would be nice to start a food drive so families would have a Thanksgiving dinner."
The first year of the food drive, Trent collected, with the help of two other teens, Zach and Nick Laux, enough food for four baskets. When the Laux brothers went off to college, several other teens were recruited to the project to keep the momentum going, including Nathaniel and Jonathan Serpico, Ramsey and Thomas Deaton, and Paige Russell. Last year, the teens collected enough food to fill 25 boxes.
The kids gather donations from Deerfield Hills only, a neighborhood consisting of just over 70 homes. According to Laurie Parker, the teens will take anything their neighbors are willing and able to give: turkeys, bags of potatoes, pies, and of course, money. Some neighbors provide everything needed for an individual
box, from the turkey to the trimmings.
"Whatever they want to donate, we take," she says.
The foodstuffs are gathered together in the Parker home, the boxes lined up in the living room and hallway as turkeys, bags of stuffing, canned goods, pies, and more are divvied up. From here, the boxes are distributed among area schools. Laurie Parker contacts the various school counselors and lets each know how many boxes the program can contribute. The counselors then deliver the boxes to the families.
"The donations are anonymous," says Parker. "We don't know the families and the families don't know where the boxes come from."
With Trent Parker going to college this year, the Serpico, Ramsey, and Russell teens have taken over the reins, with one of their families spearheading the program. Laurie Parker plans to remain involved.
"So many struggle every day," she says. "You see the need. I've always tried to instill this in Trent—that it's not all about me, there are those out there who are less fortunate."
"That really hit me hard," says Trent. "It is about others and sharing with others. Doing this Thanksgiving food drive has been a great experience and I hope we can keep it going."
THE GIVING SEASON
If you wish to make a contribution to any of these holiday efforts, please contact:
c/o St. William Catholic Church
Attn: Vickie Nicholson
521 West Fifth Street
London, KY 40741
312 Evans Chapel Road
East Bernstadt, KY 40729
Christmas for Kids
Attn: Gayle Montgomery Gregory
906 West Main Street
Auburn, KY 42206
Thanksgiving Food Drive
Attn: Laurie Parker
102 Deer Grove Court
Elizabethtown, KY 42701
Tree of Love
Attn: Linda Smith
P.O. Box 1033
Beattyville, KY 41311
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: TWO WOMEN AND A TREE OF LOVE
Also read about Beattyville's Tree of Love that provides 125 to 150 children with clothes and toys each year for Christmas. Go to Tree of Love.