MARCO ISLAND — They started lining up outside Walmart at 3:30 a.m., said Nicki Davis. Before the morning was over on Saturday, over 400 families had gone through the store and selected gifts for 1,100 children, thanks to the Joy of Giving, bringing Christmas presents to many who otherwise would have gone without.
Davis is the founder of the Joy of Giving, the organization that has specialized in bringing Christmas to underprivileged kids since 1988. With donations from the community, they surpassed their fundraising goal of $80,000 for this year’s effort, she said, and Saturday morning was the culmination of the effort.
The scene inside the front of the Walmart by Eagle Creek was organized chaos, with dozens of volunteers checking families, helping them navigate the store, and working to help them stay within their budget. Davis bounced around like a drop of water on a hot skillet, keeping the whole operation running smoothly.
Some families brought the kids along, others just brought a list. Ihil and Nelia Bershadski, originally from Russia, pushed a shopping cart loaded with a pink bicycle with training wheels, plus Transformers action figures.
“It’s for the grandkids,” said Ihil, showing the printouts they had been given to help them find the right stuff. Many, many bikes made their way to the checkout lines, along with games, toys, footballs and soccer balls, electronics including karaoke machines, and a wide assortment of pants, shirts, and socks.
Max Rufatt, 13, is into “Star Wars.” His mom, Mary Kay Schlegel, pushed the cart containing a “Star Wars” Lego set, and a “Clone Wars” game. Volunteer Lynne Eastman helped shepherd Kirsten and Lottie Jackson around the store, loading up their cart with a remote control helicopter, an elaborate Bat Cave for Batman, and Ironman II, and pushing a child’s bike. Yolande Pierre’s cart contained the youngest of her five children, as well as an assortment of gifts, with several more kids tagging along.
One of the great things about Joy of Giving’s approach is it keeps the parents in control, said volunteer Teresa Morgenstern of the Sports Club.
“Parents come and do the shopping, so they are Santa to the kids.
“A lot of these families won’t ask for help. Many have lost jobs, and never had to ask for help before. We work with the guidance counselors at the schools,” she said, to get the assistance to where it will do the most good.
“We want these kids to have hope, and believe in the spirit of Christmas,” said Morganstern.
Bob Galloway, Walmart store manager, stood beaming watching the happy throng.
“This is Christmas for us,” he said. “The associates look forward to it. This is our third year doing this, and it gets better each year – smoother.” The store, he said, had stocked up, going heavier in the electronics and toy departments, and bringing in extra staff.
“For six o’clock, this is incredible. I got here at 4 a.m. We may have too much help this year.”
But the crush of shoppers managed to keep everyone busy, volunteers and Walmart associates alike. As families made their selections, they stopped at tables manned, or womanned, by volunteers including Amber Prange, who checked their totals with handheld scanners before they hit the actual checkout counter. The lines stretched back into the store as the shoppers headed home with their treasures.
As they exited the store, the sun was bright, after they entered in darkness. Outside, volunteers from the Island Country Club, who are major benefactors for Joy of Giving, added one more gift, a frozen turkey for each family.
For more information or to contribute to Joy of Giving, a 501 (c)(3) organization, go to M&I Bank at the Esplanade, or online to www.joyofgivingchildren.org.