Operation Homefront and Wal-Mart brightened the holidays for families of deployed and wounded soldiers Friday.
The nonprofit organization partnered with the giant retailer to organize a “toy shop” at the Liberty County Armed Services YMCA. Spouses of deployed Fort Stewart soldiers were given the opportunity to select up to three free toys and one book per child.
“It’s Christmas and we’re in a recession,” said Asja Turner, who has two girls, ages 1 and 2. “We can’t spend as much on our children at Christmas.”
Turner said it’s nice to know people care about her family and recognize the sacrifice her husband makes to serve his country.
“He’ll deploy right before Christmas,” she said. “We’re doing Christmas on the 13th. It just won’t be on the 25th. The important thing is we’ll be together.”
Turner’s husband, Sgt. Gregory Turner, is with the 1st Battalion, 41st Field Artillery Regiment, Alpha Battery.
“This has been a really big help with presents for the ‘big’ kids,” said Stacey Butler who has five children — a set of 6-month old triplets and two older children, ages 7 and 9. “This is huge for me. Getting out and being able to shop is hard.”
Butler’s husband, Pfc. Allen Butler of the 2nd Brigade, 1-64 Armor Battalion is deployed to Iraq.
“This (toy shop) is awesome,” Crystal Roberson said. “It definitely helps with my husband being gone.” Roberson’s husband deployed to Iraq in September. The military mom has five children, but was shopping for her four younger children at the toy shop. The program is for children age 10 and younger, she explained.
“It takes a burden off of me,” said Erica Ector, who has two children, ages 1 and 4. Ector said money is tight this year, and the toy shop enables her to give her kids a nice Christmas. Her husband, Spc. Derrick Ector, is with the 1st Brigade, 2-7 Infantry Battalion. The 1st Brigade is scheduled to deploy next week.
Employees from Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores in Hinesville, Savannah, Jesup, Pooler and Statesboro, along with soldiers from the 87th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion’s 135th, 632nd, and 226th Quartermaster Companies, acted as Santa’s helpers, escorting parents from one toy station to another as they selected gifts for their children.
“My company volunteered 50 people, but in reality we have 10 or 12 more than that here today,” said Sgt. Davieon Brandon, of the 135th Quartermaster Company. “We try to help the best way we can.”
Brandon said if he were deployed during the holidays, he would hope his fellow soldiers would do the same for his family.
The toy giveaway is part of a nationwide effort. Toy shops are being held at military installations across the United States.
Myra Ebner, dressed as Mrs. Claus, is the director of operations for Operation Homefront Georgia. She and her staff are traveling to 13 military installations across the state, including bases where active duty reservists and the National Guard are stationed.
“It’s my job to make sure this all happened,” Ebner said. “And because of all these wonderful volunteers, it has happened.”
Ebner said her daughter, Kim Scofi, recruited her to join Operation Homefront several years ago. Scofi is president of the Operation Homefront Georgia chapter.
“I like what (Operation Homefront) does,” Ebner said. “I feel good going to bed at night knowing I made a difference in someone’s life.”
Ebner said the communities that support each installation, like Savannah and Hinesville, have “jumped in to help” with the toy shops.
Amy Palmer, chief operating officer for Operation Homefront Georgia, said without the toy shops, some military families could not afford Christmas gifts for their children. Many families are hard-pressed just to provide the everyday necessities, she said.
“It’s great to be here and support these families,” Palmer said. “Wal-Mart has been great to work with.”
The retailer donated $1.1 million in toys and books for the toy shops as part of its “Wal-Mart Gives Back” campaign. The retailer estimates the toy shops will serve more than 10,000 military children.
In addition, Wal-Mart gift cards will be given to more than 1,500 military families in 30 cities and 1,000 gift packages will be presented to the caregivers of wounded military members.
Palmer, herself a disabled U.S. Air Force veteran, said Operation Homefront was initially created to help families of deployed soldiers in the aftermath of 9/11.
“We formed in February 2002,” she said. “Initially, we supported families at Camp Pendleton in California. It was a program to help with things like if their heat went out or the car broke down. The program has grown and expanded.”