By Colleen Flaherty
Killeen Daily Herald
Operation Homefront of Texas' Jolly Holly event returned to Killeen Wednesday to brighten the season for a growing number of military families in need.
Some 450 families - including 1,100 children - received toys, a holiday meal basket and other treats at the Shilo Inn, courtesy of the San Antonio-based nonprofit that provides emergency financial assistance and other services to junior enlisted military personnel.
"The need we have seen at Operation Homefront of Texas statewide has just been incredible, just for basic needs," said Jennifer Cernoch, president of the nonprofit organization. "We're talking food."
Requests for assistance in the Fort Hood area increased by 40 percent during the last year, Cernoch added, attributing the trend to the overall economy, rising food prices and more troops being back in garrison. "Every family is feeling the pinch," she said.
Slots for the fifth annual Fort Hood-area Jolly Holly filled up in just 75 minutes during the November application period, said Cernoch. "Families were calling and begging us, saying 'please, please.' We'd like to help more, but we can only take so many."
West Fort Hood resident Krystal Dickerson, 24, attended her second Jolly Holly event to shop for her three young sons.
She said she and her husband, Pfc. Matthew Dickerson, 85th Civil Affairs Brigade, spent their holiday funds on an out-of-state trip to attend a family funeral earlier this year and needed assistance putting presents under the tree.
Christmas without Jolly Holly "would be very sad, with just a few toys," said Krystal Dickerson.
Instead, she said as she picked out 15 small toys for each child, they'll be "excited, ecstatic. Kids' faces on Christmas are priceless."
Fellow Jolly Holly participant Sgt. Honey Francis Ugalde, 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, said he'd heard about the event from his wife and was charged with selecting gifts for their three young children.
Ugalde, who was deployed to Iraq last Christmas, said having some extra help with presents for his kids "will put a smile on their faces."
Being recognized for his service also put a smile on Ugalde's face as he "shopped" giant heaps of toys in the hotel ballroom. "It shows people care about soldiers and that we're actually doing stuff right, and people appreciate us," he said.
Operation Homefront partnered with Dollar Tree, Beam Global Spirits and Wine, Cargill, Walmart and other businesses for Jolly Holly. Versions of the event also will take place in five other Texas military communities, including Fort Bliss in El Paso and Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.
Cernoch said overall need is highest at Fort Hood, mainly because of its size.
People might be surprised that active duty soldiers need financial assistance, she said, but it doesn't take more than an expensive car repair or an unexpected trip out of town to knock a young military family with minimal savings off its feet.
Operation Homefront, which operates on individual and corporate donations, administered $1.8 million in financial relief and services last year.
Contact Colleen Flaherty at email@example.com or (254) 501-7559. Follow her on Twitter at KDHFortHood.