Called 365 S.H.O.P. (Saving and Helping Other People), the program is in its second year.
“Last year, we had 40 parents,” said Kim Shafer, who organizes the event with Wanda Shifflet. “This year, there are more than 150 here.”
The program is open to families with verifiable identification. Parents can select three presents for each child from birth to 14 years old, Shafer said.
Some families are in such dire financial straits that if it wasn’t for the generosity of donors and church volunteers, their children would find empty stockings on Christmas morning, organizers said.
“For some, it’s a choice of paying the rent or buying Christmas presents,” Shifflet said. “One woman asked me if I could give her food instead of toys so her children would have something to eat.”
Shifflet said about 60 percent of the parents are single mothers. Many of the rest are working families, she said.
Parents, guided by volunteer “elfs,” wound their way through the display of more than 1,200 toys spread around the large meeting room, some on the floor, some on tables. They were bought through cash donations from 365 Church members, area businesses and churches, Shafer said.
Children were not allowed to be with their parents when they picked out the toys.
Parents had a choice of getting wrapping paper or having church volunteers wrap the presents.
Many families learned of Saturday’s event through the church’s “Bags of Love” food program, Shafer said.
Church Pastor Ron Larson said the congregation provides free meals Friday night through Sunday night for students in all Berkeley County public schools who are eligible for the federal free lunch program. Church volunteers deliver the bags to the schools on Fridays and school guidance counselors put them in the students’ knapsacks “so they can have some privacy,” Shafer said
“We put a flier in the food bags explaining the S.H.O.P. program,” Shafer said.
“It really aggravates me that some people are of a mindset that they think people who need help are too lazy to work,” Shafer said. “Both parents work in many families and they still can’t afford little extras like buying Christmas presents for their children. It’s hard for some people to have to ask for help.”
Rebecca Long of Charles Town, W.Va., was looking for presents for her two granddaughters, ages 12 and 14.
The 12-year-old likes arts and crafts and her sister likes games, reading and music, she said.
Christina Engle of Martinsburg was getting presents for her three kids, ages 2, 3 and 4.
“I needed help this year. I’m going through a hard time right now,” she said. “These people have been really nice to me.”
Larson and his wife, Pat, started the nondenominational 365 Church in early 2005 with 13 members.
“We have 300 active members today,” he said.
The church bought the 12,000-square-foot building in a foreclosure sale, he said.
Larson started Covenant Baptist Church outside of Shepherdstown, W.Va., in 1986. He left there in December 2004 to start the 365 Church, he said.
“We live in Martinsburg and the kids are grown, so we thought it was a good time to launch out here,” he said.