As the calendar flips to October, many in the region are thinking about cool autumn days, Halloween decorations and the late-season harvest time.
But for some hoping to ensure area children and teenagers have a happy Christmas, this is the time to start working for the holiday season.
The annual Give A Kid A Christmas program, started by former Sheriff Graham Atkinson more than three decades ago, will be gearing up for the fundraising portion of its activities over the next week.
“The foundation board met last week,” said Dr. Travis Reeves, Surry County School superintendent. “We have letters ready, we’re getting those printed and mail merged to go out…Those will be going out in the next few days. That’s really the kickoff to our fundraiser.”
The event, begun roughly 30 years ago when Atkinson, then a deputy serving as a DARE officer in the local school system, is a massive effort joining the county school system, the Give A Kid A Christmas foundation, the Surry County Sheriff’s Office under the direction of Sheriff Steve C. Hiatt, and local businesses and volunteers.
Through various fundraising efforts, the foundation will collect money to help buy needed goods — mainly food and clothes for underprivileged families — along with a few fun Christmas presents for the kids and teens. While they’re doing the fundraising, school counselors are working with the Salvation Army to identify kids from families who might have holiday needs, and then the program culminates near Christmas, when an army of volunteers puts together large food boxes for the families, while other volunteers use the raised funds to shop for clothes and toys for the kids.
Then, more volunteers deliver them all to households in the community.
“For over 30 years, the Give A Kid A Christmas Foundation has been a staple here in Surry County Schools to help our students with food, with clothing, the bare necessities, and with toys,” Reeves said.
The program wasn’t always so elaborate.
Atkinson, who has served in Raleigh on the governor’s Post-Release Supervision and Parole Commission since he retired from the sheriff’s office in 2015, said he had no idea of starting a county-wide movement that would last beyond his time with the sheriff’s office.
He has many times told the story of how the program began, when he noticed a child in a local elementary school in need.
“I noticed the young man was wearing the same clothes each time I was there,” he said in 2019 during the fundraising kick-off that year. “They were obscenely small clothes. I started asking some of his teachers, and they told me he’d worn the same set of clothes to school every day. Since he was in third grade.”
He reached out for some help, finding it at Walmart, who helped the deputy provide enough clothing for that young man to provide him with a modest new wardrobe.
“If you had handed him a bar of gold, it wouldn’t have meant anything more to him. For the rest of the year, his clothes may not have always been clean, but he wore those (new) clothes, and he was proud of them.”
From that beginning, and the desire to help more and more children each year, grew Atkinson’s Give A Kid A Christmas program.
This week, Atkinson said he never knew what eventually became of that child, but he recounted a few other heart-tugging incidents along the way.
“In one of our very first years, we used to get the guidance counselors to help us get the names (of kids to help). I got a request from a 17-year-old-female, when she put down what she wanted for Christmas, she put down she wanted an axe.
“Now, the law enforcement officer in me started to get worried. But…I learned this little girl’s daddy was disabled. Some well-meaning neighbors had gotten together and cut a load of wood, but they had cut it fireplace length, and all they had for heat was a wood stove. She wanted an ax so she could split the wood.
“I delivered that one in person. She got the ax, although we didn’t do that one at school,” he was quick to add. “She got an ax, but she also got some other things a 17-year-old girl should have for Christmas.”
Another story he shared brought some raw emotion to the surface, as the former sheriff said he always gets choked up relating this memory.
“I was looking through the requests when I came across a third-grade boy,” he said. “I don’t need anything,” the child had written. “But my little sister is 3 and she would really like a baby doll.
“There again, the little girl got a baby doll, but the boy also got Christmas presents. That was very early when we started doing this, but that set the tone for what we are doing today. That’s when we realized we should include siblings that are not of school age.”
Now, he said, when they identify a home in need, they try to provide gifts for all the children and teenagers in the household, and enough food for the family so they can make it through the Christmas break from school. Atkinson explained that for many children in Surry County, the only food they have each day is the school-supplied breakfast and lunch, with no dinner at home available some nights.
“You can imagine how hard that is for a two-week Christmas break.”
How to Help
Reeves said there are many opportunities for people to help. Many groups in the schools — from student clubs collecting change to faculty and staff organizing donation drives — are working to give to the project.
A number of area residents and businesses make donations as well.
The single biggest fundraiser is what they call an annual “telethon,” which is a live-streamed event similar to television shows that raise money for various causes. Reeves said the event, to be hosted by former television weather forecaster and current local pastor Austin Caviness, along with former television anchor Cameron Kent, is set for Nov. 28. It will be live-streamed on Facebook, and possibly some other outlets.
“We’ve raised $30,000, $40,000 in one night,” he said of the telethon. “A lot of folks look to that date to give.”
While that seems like a hefty figure, the effort will use every dollar, and then some.
“Last year, we raised money for food and clothing for about 700 children,” he said. “We provided over 350 food boxes…and the food boxes weigh 50-60 pounds. It’s quite a lot of food.”
On average, he said they spent about $140 per child on clothing and toys.
For those wishing to donate to the effort, there are several ways:
– Send a check to Sheriff Atkins’s Give A Kid A Christmas Foundation, PO Box 827 Dobson, NC 27017
– Send a donation via PayPal at https://www.paypal.com/paypalme/giveakidachristmas
– Sent a donation via Venmo using the email email@example.com
For more information, visit the foundation’s Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/giveakidachristmas