Angel Tree gets toys to thousands

LAWRENCEVILLE - Christy Schumate endured a biting wind and pesky rain Saturday afternoon for her 8-year-old son, a special-needs kid with a penchant for cool toys like Transformers.

Schumate expressed no shame about standing in a winding line of folks at The Salvation Army. She'd never leaned on the agency before, but this Christmas is different.

She's a single mom. Times are tough. Work is scarce, she said.

"Probably about three weeks ago I realized I wouldn't have money for his Christmas," said Schumate, shielding herself against the elements. "I'd weather this any day for my kid."

More than 800 Gwinnett families shared Schumate's enthusiasm Saturday - the first of two days for the Holiday Angel Tree Toy Distributions in Lawrenceville.

For Salvation Army "clients" who meet certain poverty guidelines, the outpouring of clothing, toys and brand-new bikes (all 750 of them shiny enough to inspire Christmas Day gasps) is nothing short of impressive. The local agency served 23 percent more Gwinnett families than last year - and 2,200 children.

Leaders attribute the surge in applicable families to a hobbling economy, a crippled housing market and even Georgia's epic drought.

"Landscaping companies and housing services have been hit - people have been laid off," said Capt. Bobby Westmoreland, who - complete with a pilot-esque uniform - serves as commanding officer of the Salvation Army's Lawrenceville Family Service Center.

"Everyone goes through tough times - they need not be ashamed," said Westmoreland. "This is neighbor helping neighbor."

All told, more than 33,000 families across metro Atlanta will be served before Christmas by the Angel Tree Toy Drive.

Salvation Army spokesman Lafeea Watson called her organization's Yuletide drive among the largest in the region.

"If not the largest, we're one of the largest," Watson said.

The Angel Tree drive is not to be confused with the ubiquitous kettle drives often associated with shopping malls and ringing bells. It's unique. It works like this:

Families apply as early as October to qualify for Christmas assistance. Once in, they submit their child's Christmas wish list to a Salvation Army database. That info is printed out in the form of tags - much like those sticky barcodes used to wrap luggage handles - which are then hung on Christmas trees at malls, or distributed in bulk to gift-giving churches and businesses.

The gifts are stockpiled in the agency's crowded Lawrenceville gymnasium. Then parents come, load up and drive away like Santas.

"It's not about the gifts: It's remembering that, in your time of need, someone stepped up," said Westmoreland. "I'm just a steward of other people's goodwill."