By Amanda Kim Stairrett
Fort Hood Herald
Without the contributions from a group of volunteers and donators this year, more than 3,000 Fort Hood children would not have a Christmas. And that’s just a fraction of the families who have benefitted since Fort Hood’s most well-known nonprofit organization began more than 10 years ago.
Santa’s Workshop started in 1993 as a way for 13th Sustainment Command soldiers to help out their own. While the program has grown, its roots are still with the command, which serves as a sponsor unit.
The Workshop hosted a grand opening reception on Thursday.
Santa’s Workshop benefits any active-duty, activated Guard or Reserve soldiers, retirees or Department of the Army civilians with children between 6 months and 14 years old. Any family experiencing financial hardship is eligible, according to information from the organization. Hardships can range from a family with low income, to soldiers who have recently come to post and their finances haven’t caught up, to emergency cases like those who have experienced an illness or fire. A soldier’s rank, family size or deployment status is not considered, only the family’s need.
Though the application deadline has passed, emergencies always come up and people can still apply, said Kim Diano, Workshop president. Parents can apply for the program on the Workshop’s Web site at www.swsfh.com or through their Command Financial Specialists.
If selected, parents schedule an appointment to visit the Workshop, which is located next to the commissary on Clear Creek Road in the same building as the Fort Hood Tax Center. They can then “shop,” choosing from packed shelves of toys, books and games, which were all donated or bought with donated money. Officials estimate that providing gifts costs about $25 per child. The Workshop is always accepting donations of toys and money, and those can be made through the Web site or by calling (254) 287-TOYS.
Parents can choose one red gift and one blue gift for each child. The red gifts are the larger, more expensive items, Diano said. The parents also get to choose one board game and one book among the Workshop’s wide array that includes Twister, Chutes and Ladders and Harry Potter. There are also Spanish versions of the games and books available. The board games help promote family time and the books encourage reading, Diano said.
The Workshop also has a handful of bicycles. Volunteers offer bicycles throughout the two weeks the workshop is open, and they count as a child’s red and blue toy.
Sonya Craft is one of two toy managers for the Workshop, which means she makes sure the shelves are stocked. If there is anyone who knows how to shop sales and take advantage of discounts, it is the toy managers. The toy managers shop year round to ensure the best toys are on the shelves once parents start “shopping” come the holidays.
The toy managers don’t buy just one of a certain item, either — they buy 10. Finding a good deal on Hungry Hungry Hippos means Craft could walk away with a cart full of ravenous hippos.
“We take very seriously our job of being good stewards of gifts,” Craft said at the reception on Thursday.
Craft works closely with K•B Toys, Toys “R” Us, Big Lots and Wal-Mart to find a selection of toys for babies, toddlers, children and pre-teens. When shopping for toys, Craft looks at the age appropriateness, popularity, packaging and size of a particular item. It’s important that parents get to choose from the latest, greatest toys for their kids.
Although serving as a toy manager keeps her “very, very busy,” it is rewarding. The holiday season is obviously the busiest time of year for the Workshop’s volunteers and Craft said she just takes a deep breath and thinks, “How many parents didn’t have to go into debt this year?”
“It’s a great feeling,” she said.
Like many of the volunteers, Craft is the spouse of a soldier. She served as the Workshop’s application manager two years ago. Her children, 5- and 7-year-old boys, also help. They occasionally help their mom shop — which can be dangerous, Craft joked, because their Christmas lists can get long — and they help her unload and sort the toys.
In the first year Santa’s Workshop was in operation, about 1,200 children received toys, most of which were gently used. The program began to expand to other units, and, in 1998, the program became a private organization. Last year, 3,300 children benefitted from Santa’s Workshop.
As the sponsor, 13th Sustainment Command soldiers volunteer to work at the Workshop, doing anything from cleaning to decorating to stocking shelves.
“13th (Sustainment Command) deserves a humongous pat on the back,” Diano said.
Most of the command’s volunteers come from the 4th Corps Materiel Management Center. Soldiers volunteer at the Workshop about five days a week, said Command Sgt. Maj. Kevin Smith, the center’s senior noncommissioned officer. They started in the first part of November when there was a big push to get the Workshop set up, he said. Aside from cleaning, decorating and stocking, some of the soldiers also went to Austin last weekend to bring back donated toys. There are about 20 soldiers who have volunteered, but there is a core group of about five who spend their time at the Workshop.
One of those soldiers is Spc. Charlene Ahrens. She volunteers with the Workshop because she has always been a holiday person and thought it was a good cause. This is her first year at the Workshop and said she would probably volunteer as an elf. Elves are volunteers who help families “shop.”
Contact Amanda Kim Stairrett at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (254) 501-7547