Making Christmas merry for military families in need

Program will provide gifts for 454 kids in 168 families

Story courtesy The State Journal http://state-journal.com/

By Kevin Wheatley, Published: December 18, 2013

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Linda Jones, left, Brooks O’Neal and Cindy Culver pick out gifts for a family with three boys. (Dylan Buell/dbuell@state-journal.com)

(Editor’s note: This story has updated numbers of children and families supported by the program)

FRANKFORT, Ky. — A sign outside a room at the Boone National Guard Center stocked with toys intended for underprivileged military families lets visitors know they’re stepping into the North Pole.

The nondescript room might as well be Santa’s workshop during the holidays as Kentucky National Guard staff sort through gifts, some of which will be the only presents nestled beneath the tree on Christmas morning.

Click here for more photos of Operation Military Cheer.

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Books O’Neal, 6, puts a skateboard into a bag that has gifts for a military family with three boys. (Dylan Buell/dbuell@state-journal.com)

Called Operation Military Cheer, the program’s cache of toys – everything from board games to Barbie dolls to Legos to bicycles – has dwindled in recent days because the distribution of gifts has begun.

Essentials, such as grocery gift cards and infant food, are also provided through
Operation Military Cheer.

This year the holiday program will provide gifts for 454 Kentucky children, whose parents serve in all branches of military services. That’s one more child than last year, but organizers expect additional requests for assistance will come as late as Christmas Eve.

“That’s our payoff in the end, is knowing that the National Guard’s made a difference,” said Cindy Culver, lead organizer for Operation Military Cheer. “I’d like to be a fly on the wall on some of these Christmas mornings. These kids come around the corner, they’ve had bicycles in front of the tree and probably may not have had anything if it wasn’t for this program.”

The program has grown considerably since Culver’s first involvement in 2007, when her husband, Maj. Tim Culver, was deployed on a training mission to Africa. Fewer than 100 children had registered that year, Cindy Culver said, noting participation has risen every year since.

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Pfc. Joe Lovely carries bags containing gifts to a van for distribution. (Dylan Buell/dbuell@state-journal.com)

Families seeking assistance are typically steered to the program through a military point of contact, usually a first sergeant, said Linda Jones, another Operation Military Cheer coordinator. Once approved, the family will usually submit a Christmas list for their children by Black Friday, and then collect a garbage bag filled with unwrapped toys either at the Boone National Guard Center or the nearest armory.Those moments tend to be emotional, Culver and Jones said. A number of active duty and reserve military families struggle through the holidays, either with spouses serving overseas or trouble finding steady work or some other hardship, so any assistance is met with the utmost gratitude. Those involved in the program, more often than not, reciprocate the feelings.

Culver recalled one military wife who requested help in 2008. Her husband had been deployed overseas, and the holidays had stretched the family’s finances thin. “She had two little girls, and her goal was to have them riding bicycles by the time her husband came home from deployment,” Culver said. “I hooked them up with two bicycles, and she sent me a video . of one of the girls riding down the sidewalk meeting dad at the end in a military uniform.

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Pfc. Brittni Sherman, left, and Pfc. Joe Lovely put bags of gifts into a van Wednesday morning. The van will make stops at National Guard bases in Lexington, Richmond and London, and the gifts will then be distributed to military families in the area. (Dylan Buell/dbuell@state-journal.com)

“I had to close down my computer, and I took a walk around the pond, and I cried the whole way around the pond.”

Anyone can “adopt” a military family through Operation Military Cheer by calling the program’s toll-free phone line at 800-372-7601 or on the Kentucky National Guard’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/KentuckyGuard.

Any extra toys collected for the program go to the Galilean Children’s Home in Liberty,
Culver said.

The nonprofit Home Builders Association of Lexington is a large donor, she said. The Kentucky National Guard partnered with the organization earlier this month for a toy drive.

The Lexington-Bluegrass Association of Realtors and the Disabled American Veterans are also contributors, Culver said, and Operation Homefront provides dollar-store toys at the program’s Christmas dinners at each of the 15 armories where gifts are delivered.

“You can’t be up here working and be a Grinch,” said Kentucky National Guard spokesman David Altom, who once helped coordinate Operation Military Cheer. “It wears on you. Your
heart’ll grow three sizes.”

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