LAWRENCEVILLE -- Hundreds of Gwinnett County residents lined up Saturday at The Salvation Army Lawrenceville Corps Community Center to receive bags of toys and bicycles to give to their children for Christmas.
Volunteers helped distribute the items to families being served through The Salvation Army Angel Tree Program, which provides gifts to children ages 12 and under residing in low-income households.
This year, The Salvation Army in Gwinnett is helping more than 3,000 children, said Captain Bobby Westmoreland, the commanding officer of the Lawrenceville Corps.
Westmoreland said The Salvation Army's program is unique because the organization uses this time of year to make connections with families who could benefit from other services it offers.
"The Salvation Army's whole goal is not just to give gifts at Christmas but to work with families so that transformation happens," Westmoreland said.
Since the gifts are donated by community members, the Angel Tree Program lets the people receiving help know the community is on their side, Westmoreland said.
"The people of Gwinnett have been gracious and gone and adopted these families," he said.
Auburn resident Stacy Jones said it was a relief to be able to pick up toys and a bicycle for her 5-year-old son.
"It makes me feel good," she said.
The Salvation Army treats the Angel Tree Program as the first step in building a relationship with the families that will support them and help bring love, hope and healing, Westmoreland said.
"We'll make Gwinnett better, one family at a time," he said. "We're going to get stronger and better."
But there is more work to be done, he said. Since the end of the 2009 statistical year, The Salvation Army has seen an 83 percent increase in families seeking housing assistance and a 45 percent increase in people looking for help with basic needs such as food and clothing.
Meanwhile, another nonprofit agency in Lawrenceville also distributed toys Saturday to needy community members.
Freedom Christian Ministry served as a pick-up location for families receiving assistance from the U.S. Marine Corps Toys for Tots Foundation. About 300 children were helped through the church's distribution, senior pastor Aaron Rushing said.
"This is just one of the ways we reach out to the community," Rushing said. "it's about making someone else's Christmas a little brighter."
The church also served refreshments to the families that stopped by. Kroger at 455 Grayson Highway SW donated items for the event. Rushing said his congregation also donated enough money to provide gift cards to 15 families that needed some extra help.
Lawrenceville resident Tawana Lewis said she was thankful the church reached out to help the community. She said she was affected by the struggling economy this year when the restaurant where she worked for nine months suddenly closed.
Lewis said she was lucky to find another job within a month, but in the meantime, she had worried that she and her children, a 3-year-old boy and an 18-month-old girl, would end up on the street.
"(This toy distribution) means a lot, actually, because I don't have the money to get them presents," she said.