12/18/05 — Presents, stockings and hugs

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Presents, stockings and hugs

By Renee Carey
Published in News on December 18, 2005 2:09 AM

For 5-year-old Marisa, finding a present for herself wasn't her top priority when she stepped across the stage, wide-eyed, to take a look at all the offerings at the annual Empty Stocking Fund Christmas party.

"I like Spider Man toys," she said, a shy smile breaking out across her face.

When pressed for a reason for her unusual choice, she looked up proudly.

"It's for my brother," she said.

Marisa was one of more than 600 children who crowded Dillard Middle School's auditorium Saturday morning to get a box of clothes, a brand new toy and a stocking filled with candy, cookies and fruit.

The morning began with carolling with News-Argus advertising sales representative Harold Caldwell, one of the many volunteers who gave up their Saturday morning to participate, and included a rousing rendition of "Jingle Bells" as well as other Christmas favorites. Then, it was time to pick up some clothes, choose a toy and head over to say hello to Santa Claus.

As each child crossed the stage, he or she was greeted by a volunteer who guided him or her in the pursuit of the perfect Christmas present.

For 4-year-old Adriano, that meant something very specific.

"Trucks," he said, a smile creeping across his face as he made determined, yet polite, steps toward the toy pile.

For Holly, 7, Baby Bratz were on her list.

She knew what she wanted mostly because she had already communicated with the head man himself, Santa Claus.

"I wrote a letter," she said.

Mary Lynn, 4, came to the party dressed for the occasion, complete with a sparkling tiara.

This budding princess had already been one of the carolers earlier. Now, she was ready for her next task -- picking out a gift.

"She loves makeup," her mother said.

Mary Lynn nodded her head.

Most of the children were eager to talk about their holiday wishes as they waited for their turn to choose a toy.

Little Michael, 6, is hoping for snow.

"Because I like building snowmen," he said.

Not a surprise, since he was the first to raise his hand to lead the singing of "Frosty the Snowman" on stage moments before his trip to the toy pile.

And he wasn't alone.

Robert, 4, had the same Christmas wish.

"I like snow," he announced, after proudly reciting his full name, complete with "the third" on the end.

He settled for a special toy car all his own.

The children's holiday wishes included everything from baby dolls to footballs. Barbies, Bratz and toy guns were among the top choices.

But for one of the young guests, giving back was just as important. He offered to hand Santa a dollar when it was his turn to choose a gift. He will give the money to the Salvation Army's kettle campaign instead.

Volunteers arrived at the auditorium before 7 a.m. Saturday, unpacking boxes, arranging stockings and preparing the greeting area.

And that early morning wake-up call was not an easy one to face for first-time volunteers Robert Michael Franks, 14, and his brother, Jonathan Franks, 13.

They came with their grandparents, Bob and Margaret Cherry. Mrs. Cherry is a member of the Goldsboro Woman's Club, which has been actively involved in the Empty Stocking Fund for many years, doing the toy shopping and guiding the children through the selection process on party day.

"I'm hoping this will be a tradition for the boys," their grandmother said. "It is something that families can do together, and they are at an age when they need to see that there is another side -- people who don't have as much as they do."

And that is exactly what Jonathan said he learned from his first year as a volunteer -- and why he will be back in the future.

"I am getting to help the poor kids who don't have presents," he said. "It is a way for them to get toys their parents can't afford to give them."

And the children are also the reason Pat Stokes and her fellow members of the Continental Societies Inc. get up early to spend their morning at the Empty Stocking Fund party.

"We do it because we love the children," she said. "And we want them to have that glow."

Members of her organization are no strangers to good works. They do many projects throughout the year for needy families in the county.

But this Christmas party is special, Mrs. Stokes said.

"It puts a smile on the child's face," she said. "If you could just come to see the happiness and appreciation not only from the children, but their parents, too ... that makes it worth all the work. It is a way to show your love."

Also on hand to volunteer Saturday were members of the Wayne Community College International Students Club, who assisted with not only present-choosing for all the children, but also greeted Spanish-speaking guests and guided them through picking a toy. Then, they translated the children's Christmas wishes for Santa Claus.

Other volunteers included members of the Elks Club, families from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and a contingent from The News-Argus staff, lead by party organizer and fund treasurer, Barbara Sturm.

But the morning was not all about toys. And neither is Christmas.

At least, not according to Chris, 11.

"It is because of Baby Jesus," he said, his bright smile becoming a bit more somber for just a moment. "That's the reason."