Varnell Elementary School Principal Lisa Jones says the mother of a student came up to her on Tuesday and hugged her.
“She said, ‘I had no idea what you guys were giving us. When I got home and found out, I cried. My husband cried. We didn’t have to worry over holiday season,’” Jones said.
The woman was part of one of 48 families of Varnell students that were provided with food, clothing and toys by the community for Christmas. The families picked up their packages Monday night.
Varnell Elementary has long had a canned food drive and a toy drive for families in need. Four years ago, the City Council joined in the effort.
“This is the second year that the local churches have partnered with us. I think Varnell Methodist has long done something, and we’ve been working with the school for a few years. And we all got together and turned this into one big event,” Mayor Dan Peeples said. “We helped 99 children, which came to 48 families. That’s double what we did last year. Most of them came from Varnell Elementary School or North Whitfield Middle School.”
Jones said teachers at the school helped identify children whose families might be in need, then asked them if they would be interested in taking part. Jones said there are many such families in the community, unfortunately, due to the recession and the area’s high unemployment rate.
Those who were interested were given a form to fill out identifying their exact needs. Then volunteers were given a sheet for each family and asked to shop for that family.
“We also said, ‘If you can’t spend $60 and help out that way, bring in a can of food or bring in a toy,’” Peeples said. “We had so much canned food that every family took home two large boxes of food. On top of that, we provided them with everything they’d need to make a Christmas meal for their family. Canned corn. Canned green beans. A bag of potatoes. A frozen turkey. Cranberry sauce.”
Jones said that what made the project special was that it was completed through the combined efforts of several churches, many businesses, the school and dozens of individuals from across the Varnell community.
“The school did a food drive in November and a toy drive in December,” she said. “Then we challenged staff to see if we could collect 50 bottles of shampoo, 50 bottles of laundry detergent, 50 tubes of toothpaste, 50 packs of toilet paper. Things that people may not have the money for but are necessities.”
Peeples agreed that the project was a true community effort.
“This wasn’t something where one company or one big donor provided most of the donations. This was volunteers from across the community,” he said.
Anissa Downey was one of those volunteers.
“I live in Highland Forest, and I do the newsletter for the neighborhood. I knew Dan, and he asked me to put it in the newsletter,” she said. “I got interested and decided to do whatever I could to help.”
Downey said it was a “blessing” to be there when the families picked up the packages.
“Some of the kids knew what was happening. Many didn’t. We put everything in plain packages so the kids couldn’t see what was in them and left it up to the parents to determine how they would give the toys and clothes to the kids.”
Julie Thames found out about the project through her church, Varnell Baptist Church.
“Dan contacted us and let us know what they were doing. I used to work at Varnell Elementary, so I really wanted to help the kids,” she said. “Monday night was really great. I don’t think the kids really knew what was going on, but they were having a great time.”