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The gift of giving: Volunteers make 'critical' difference for charities in holiday season

Megan Hix

By Megan Hix
Dec. 23, 2017 at 10:30 p.m.

Volunteer Terri Green helps prepare for the distribution of Angel Tree Christmas packages, on Wednesday December 20, 2017, at the Salvation Army's Family Thrift Store. (Michael Cavazos/News-Journal Photo)

Terri Green sometimes lays awake at night, thinking about all she has left to do to help the Salvation Army prepare for its Angel Tree program by its rapidly approaching deadline.

"For the last three weeks I haven't even slept, because I go home and think about all of this up here," Green, of Longview, said.

But Green still looks forward to each October when she gets to strap on her red Salvation Army apron and get to work. She said that in her 16 seasons as a volunteer, organizers haven't been able to run her off.

"I live all year long for this almost three months out of the year," Green said. "By the time I get home, I'm completely worn out, but it's the best thing I do all year long and my favorite."

Green is one of many unpaid volunteers behind the holiday food drives, toy drives and other charitable events in Longview. These volunteers play a vital role in area organizations such as the Salvation Army, Newgate Mission and Hiway 80 Rescue Mission, which put in extra effort to provide for those in need around the holidays.

Green alone has been involved with everything from data entry and gathering assistance applications to packaging or transporting toys for the Angel Tree.

"I've done just a little bit of all of it," she said.

As the Salvation Army gets ready to distribute the children's gifts it collects each year, Green said there are many years when volunteers work until midnight the day before.

"But it's ready to go when those kids show up," she said.

And in whatever time she has left, she brings her daughter and grandchildren to ring bells for the Salvation Army or to pass out gifts to the elderly.

Hiway 80 Rescue Mission Executive Director Eric Burger said his organization also sees a spike in interested volunteers around the holidays. He estimated that in November and December, 1,500 different volunteers do "critical" work to organize toy drives for the mission, buy supplies, assemble care packages, help serve meals, sort and package gifts and more.

"It would be almost impossible to track the number of hours volunteers work (this time of year)," Burger said. "If this is a one-time thing or someone wants to try something new, now is the time."

Just for the mission's annual family Christmas meal and gift distribution, which was held Saturday, Burger said Hiway 80 depends on several hundred individual volunteers.

Stacy Primeaux, 60, of Holly Lake Ranch, is new to East Texas but knew she wanted to make an impact in the community right away, so she started helping out at Hiway 80 around Thanksgiving.

"I just want to give back," said Primeaux, who helped match children to gifts donated during the mission's toy drive this past week. "It's a wonderful, wonderful thing that can make all the difference."

Newgate Mission Executive Director Hollie Bruce said her organization relies almost exclusively on volunteer help year-round, especially those who help run the mission's Christmas store, assemble care packages and serve Christmas and Christmas Eve meals.

Bruce said she's counted on volunteer Laurie Bogle to help run the store, which sells Christmas decorations to raise money for Newgate Mission, since the store's inception.

The effort takes "hours and hours and hours" to set up the shop in the month before Christmas and that other volunteers play a critical role in running it, Bogle said. She said the work never deters her from coming back for more.

"You come in one day and you never leave," Bogle said of Newgate. "It's such a lonely time for many people, so if you can give somebody a hug, it may be the only hug they get."

Bogle made sure Newgate's visitors got those hugs and the attention they needed Wednesday, when she and her three grandchildren dressed as elves to deliver candy canes before lunch.

Bruce said while Bogle's work stands out, most of the volunteers she works with have the same motivation to give. She said interest in volunteering increases this time of year, and she tries to find places for all of them.

"Being so small, we could never afford to pay for all of the people who serve," Bruce said.

The holiday season has also sparked toy drives from the Longview fire and police departments and local businesses, including Mundt Music which organized one for Newgate.

Bruce said even workplace donation drives have made an impact on Newgate's resources, and the people who organize those drives are serving in a different, equally important way.

For many, volunteering offered time at the holidays to think more about giving than getting. But Green said volunteers can get something out of the deal, too.

"I get joy, happiness and I feel good knowing I'm helping," she said.

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