“Giving food to families for Christmas wasn’t an idea – it was one God-given situation that dogged me for years.”
Marc Hensley, Director of Mountain Outreach (MO), sat on a fold-out wooden chair in the chilly MO warehouse. It was “warehouse day” for MO – the Saturday they had set aside to bring in families and give them food and toys for the holidays. Volunteers walked back and forth constantly, leading families along tables lined with toys or stocking pallets with food and loading the pallets into families’ vehicles.
For years, MO only provided toys, no food. That changed after Hensley visited the home of a family whose heat had shut down during Christmas Break.
“I walked in with a couple space heaters, and there were two little boys – probably five and eight years old – kneeling down at a coffee table,” Hensley recalled. “They had a little bowl in front of them and were eating Cheerios with water on them. Water. I said, ‘You boys having some breakfast?’ and they just kind of looked at me.”
As Hensley remembered that day, tears came to his eyes.
“I told my wife, ‘A kid can have the greatest toy in the world,’” he said. “’But if their stomach’s growling and they’re hungry, it’s no good! Why can’t Mountain Outreach provide food?’”
After a lot of work behind the scenes, God’s Food Pantry (GFP) allowed Mountain Outreach to become one of their partners. Each winter for the past three years, MO has sent in one massive order to GFP, who delivers the order to MO’s warehouse the Friday before families arrive.
This year, GFP supplied almost 40,000 pounds of food. More than 100 families went home on Warehouse Day with 350 pounds of kid-friendly foods to stock their cupboards during the Christmas season. The pallets included canned veggies, fruit cups, Teddy Grahams, Chef Boyardee meals, even frozen meat like hamburgers, hot dogs and pre-cooked chicken.
Parents in the area do not have to decide between providing either Christmas gifts or food for their children. Thanks to the U.S. Marines program Toys for Tots, who partners with MO for Warehouse Day, families receive both.
“It’s a win-win,” said Hensley. “I think God led us in this direction to add the food, and I think He brought in Toys for Tots so we could do that. One lady this year had never done this before and asked what it would be like. I explained, ‘Well, you’ll walk through and pick out gifts for your kids, and then in the back, we’ll be giving out food.’ Her eyes got big as saucers. She said, ‘Food?’ and started crying. She said, ‘You don’t know what that would mean to my family.’”
Parents were able to pick out five gifts for each child. Those with infants got to choose two toys per child in addition to diapers and baby wipes.
“You know it takes a burden off parents’ shoulders,” said Vicki Tillman, a volunteer from Bell’s Campground Baptist Church in Tennessee. “You just think about their children coming down and seeing the presents under the tree. Those kids are going to be so excited! What joy that brings a parent, seeing how excited your kids are.”
“There’s nothing like the love you have for your child,” said Sandra Russell, who joined the Tillmans to volunteer. “It’s instant love from the moment they’re here. It’s so cool to see that MO is enabling people to be the parents they want to be. These parents see that someone still cares, regardless of their situation.”
The men’s and women’s archery teams at Cumberlands also volunteered at the event. While the women helped families choose toys, the men filled food pallets. Most of the archers had volunteered at the event in prior years, and all said they enjoyed the opportunity to serve.
“This event gets better every year,” said Tanner Harrison, an archer from McKee, Kentucky. “I love it. It’s the highlight of my year!”
Mountain Outreach completes a number of projects and hosts several events throughout the year, and each time, it makes a noticeable difference for families in need.
“I believe our families will have Christmas this year because of this event,” said Hensley. “The gifts and the food ensure that they have a Christmas. I’ll be honest, if it weren’t for this event, I don’t think they would.”