December 24, 2003 | By: Aimee D. Heald

Childers checks to make sure everything is in a food box before giving it to a client.

More than 650 Lee County children will receive Christmas presents from a unique toy “store” this year. Most of their parents don’t have extra income to buy toys, clothes and food for the holidays.

Lee County Cooperative Extension Expanded Food and Nutrition Program Assistant Brenda Childers works closely with Sister Alice Retzner of the Queen of All Saints Catholic Church to coordinate a program that provides everything a family needs for Christmas – right down to the holiday wrapping paper.

“A lot of these families are on fixed incomes in a small community that doesn’t have many jobs,” Childers said. “A lot are single parents. Everybody just wants their kids to have something for Christmas.”

The Toy Store program has been going on for more than 30 years and grows every year. Parents of young children sign up and then get a chance to “shop” for their children. The first thing parents do is choose a stuffed animal for each child. They receive 150 points per child and then walk through the “store” and pick out items that total those points. Parents browse dolls, bikes, trains, trucks, and games, just to name a few items.

Volunteers from several community organizations lead parents through the store to help them pick out appropriate items for their children and then make sure each child gets books, crayons, socks, underwear and clothing. Usually they have a large plastic bag full of items and they have to put that in their car before picking up a large box of food, including a ham for a holiday meal complete with cooking and safety instructions.

“If you add up what all they get, it’s a lot,” Childers said. “It’s about $1000 worth of help for a family with five children.”

Sister Alice said the program started in 1965 when the church began.

“People were coming to ask the church for help,” she said. “So the church asked people from Lexington and Covington to send things for the families. As the years went on, we decided to tap our resources as a Catholic church. We contacted several large parishes in Cincinnati, northern Kentucky, and Indiana and asked them if they’d be willing to share and make sure kids have a nice Christmas. It’s gotten bigger every year.”

Some parishes collect items via a “giving” tree in their church. Members choose a slip of paper from the tree asking them to buy gifts for children of a certain age and gender and label them as such before donating them.

Some parishes send large moving vans of donations to Lee County and other Kentucky counties. Donations also include used items like blankets, cribs, strollers and kitchen items. These items are displayed yard-sale style and families are encouraged to take whatever they need, but no money is exchanged.

Agencies such as Community Action, Hospice, Social Services, Habitat for Humanity help the Cooperative Extension service and the church by giving time the weeks leading up to the event and also by making food to serve volunteers the day of the event.

On shopping day, no children are allowed to attend. Childers said this is mainly so the parents can get what they need and the children don’t have to know from where the gifts came.

“I know a lot of these families really well,” she said. “Sometimes I know what a kid wants and I help the parents find it while we shop. I get to see these kids have what they want for Christmas.”

Diana Spurlock has worked with Childers for many years -- first as a client, and now as a volunteer. Childers helped Spurlock find her current job as office manger for Daniel Boone Transit.

“This is what kicks off my Christmas spirit; today is the day it all begins,” Spurlock said. “We’re really helping a lot of people who wouldn’t have a Christmas if it were not for this program. That’s what makes me feel so good. I’ve been there. When I went home at night and I had presents for my kids – I know how these parents are going to feel.”

Loretta Cahl has lived in Lee County for nearly four years and she said her family has struggled financially for the last few.

“If it wasn’t for these guys, my girls wouldn’t have Christmas,” she said. “It helps out a lot and it makes me want to cry. They’ve really been here for us. We’ve been struggling for the last four years, but it’s going to get better thanks to these guys.”



Writer: Aimee D. Heald 859-257-4736, ext. 267
Source: Brenda Childers 606-464-2759