Every year I think I may have to look for that special Christmas story that embodies the true meaning of the season – and every year that story finds me.
This year was no different.
I put out a call just two days ago about a few families who were in great need this Christmas – and the response was overwhelming. I got emails from people with gifts, people wanting to make donations and people baking cookies and wanting to know how to get them to the families. I was able to see firsthand the care and compassion of the people in my community.
And then there was that special story, the one that stands out in a time that has been particularly tumultuous for members of public safety. The story that shows the true purpose of those who swear to protect and serve. I got to witness how the men and women in blue in my community – on fire trucks and in police cars – take that oath to heart.
The story begins with Steve Williams, a counselor who works with foster families. He got to hear of a family who were in desperate need. “Mom” had managed to keep her family together and not have to put them into foster care, but she told him, just three days before Christmas, that there would be no Christmas for her family this year. With eight children, the youngest one just 3 weeks old, a car that needed repairs, and nobody to help her, Christmas was looking bleak. Williams put out a call on social media and the community stepped up.
“We were able to get enough to help not just this family, but three others too,” Williams said. But then the Walton County and Monroe Public safety departments got to hear of it and the story took on a whole new life.
Walton County Fire Rescue Driver Engineer Latimer “Lat” Barnes tells the story of how WCFR had put out a call for families in need, something they do every year – some of them through Williams. But with Christmas just three days away, they had given out everything they had collected. That was when Williams came calling.
“He called me about this family when he stopped by one of the stations and I already knew we didn’t have anything left,” Barnes said. “But when he started telling me the story I thought, ‘I just can’t tell this guy no, I just can’t.’ So, I talked to my captain, I talked to one of my battalion chiefs, and let AJ (firefighter Artis Johnson) know what was going on and we started trying to find something. We made a post on Facebook and people just starting pouring in with gifts and money and donations and food and everything. The biggest needs were food and clothes, but for me, I wasn’t happy with just food and clothing. I wanted them to have some sort of toy or item that they would want. So we got enough toys yesterday morning, we had some food and then people just kept stopping by and dropping stuff off.”
By Christmas Eve, they had collected more than they could ever have imagined. Barnes said his wife and mother spent all afternoon Friday wrapping the gifts. The mother in the family was able to help identify for them which article of clothing or toy would work for which child, but she said she didn’t want anything for herself. She told Barnes that this had made her Christmas for her. When pressed by Barnes’ wife, however, she finally said there was one thing she wanted for herself.
“She said the only thing she would like to have was a meal for her family, on Christmas Day, with one of those hams with the cinnamon glaze on it. That was the only thing she asked for, but for us as a whole group, that was just not good enough, so we got her something else she has no idea about.”
As well as that ham with the cinnamon glaze, food that would last quite a lot longer than just Christmas Day, they got her some clothes and toiletries that she only found out about on Christmas Eve when the gifts were delivered. The also have enough money to pay her utility bills for a couple of months, help her out on her car loan and fix it to get it safely back on the road for her.
The whole group gathered at the Fire Station on Bold Springs Road at 9:45 a.m. on Christmas Eve and drove in a convey to the neighborhood in Monroe that the family lives in. Fire engine and fire and police vehicles arrived to make Christmas special for this family.
It is difficult to say whose Christmas was made more special by this Christmas story – the family who benefitted or those who worked together to make it happen. Firefighter after firefighter, police officer after police officer and their family members joined in offloading the vehicles and placing the gifts around the Christmas Tree. The table was laden with food and the “mechanics” in the departments took a look at the car to see what was needed to get it roadworthy.
I was privileged to be able to go along in this convoy of Christmas cheer and I’m pretty sure that as much as this will be a Christmas that the family will remember, it also will always hold a special place in the hearts of those members of local public safety and their families who made it happen.
“It’s the best thing that I’ve been involved with for a long time,” Barnes said, adding other WCFR members who played a large role in making it happen included Capt. Patrick Slocum and Driver Engineer Brunson Gunter.
Just being a witness to it made this a special Christmas for me. I would like to wish the community, and most especially those members of our public safety who go above and beyond every day to protect and serve our community to the best of their ability, a very Merry Christmas!
Editor’s note: I got to witness a beautiful family with children who were polite, friendly and very grateful. After everything that this year has brought, I go into this Christmas Eve with a vision of happy children, in a home that may not have much, but obviously has love and respect. I got to see those children, from 17 on down, come out of that home and hug those firefighters, police officers and their family members. It definitely made my Christmas.
(The family gave permission to take and share these photographs)