Angel Tree helping families in Lonoke County

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<p>Mark Buffalo</p><p>Debbie Atkins with the Lonoke County Christmas Coalition talks about the toys and gifts that have been donated during the holiday season.</p>

A decades-old tradition of giving continues this Holiday season through the efforts of the Lonoke County Christmas Coalition’s annual Angel Tree program for local families in need.

Debbie Atkins, who has been involved with the program since its inception roughly 22 years ago, said the program accepts applications each year from as many as 300 families in the Lonoke County area. With support from the community and local retailers, Atkins said she and other volunteers are able to provide gifts for each of those families.

“We’ve never had a year that we didn’t have everyone taken care of,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of really good support with the community.”

The program accepts applications from families during October and November. This gives volunteers enough time to process the applications, purchase the gifts and have them ready before Christmas. Atkins said most, but not all, of the gifts will be distributed on Dec. 13 and 14. Gifts that aren’t distributed on these dates will still be available before Christmas.

“If we tell them we’re going to have them something,” Atkins said, “we’ll have them something.”

Even when a need arises at the last minute due to unforeseen circumstances within a family, the organization makes every effort to ensure that the children still have gifts to open on Christmas morning. Such was the case several years ago, Atkins said, when she received a call about a grandmother who had unexpectedly received custody of her six grandchildren just three days before Christmas.

With limited resources and no time to shop, the grandmother was unable to provide gifts for the children, so Atkins and her husband brought gifts to the family on Christmas Eve.

“She just cried and cried,” said Atkins, referring to the grandmother.

The gift-giving and gift-receiving is typically done anonymously, Atkins said. A number is assigned to each family during the application process, so when a family comes to pick up their gifts, the only information they need to provide is their assigned number.

Atkins said they try to make sure the families get the things they need, like coats and pajamas, plus a few toys from their wishlists. Popular wish list items this year include the Baby Alive doll, Legos, Monster High dolls and, of course, bikes.

“Bikes are always at the top of the list,” Atkins said.

Once all the gifts have been purchased, the Lonoke County Co-Op picks them up from various locations in the area and brings them to a central location where they can be picked up, Atkins said. She credits Knox Realty for lending them a space large enough to accommodate all the gifts.

“It’s pretty impressive when you get it together in one room,” she said. “It’s a lot of stuff.”

The Angel Trees are located at Arvest Bank, the Lonoke Banking Center and First State Bank, as well as the Cabot Wal-Mart, Atkins said. Those wanting to help can either sponsor a family and shop for the gifts on the wish list, or donate money and let someone else do the shopping.

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