BUTLERVILLE, Ind. (12/15/2011) - The economy may not show many signs of improvement, but Christmas spirit is on the rise thanks to a few soldiers who brought a little cheer to families in need.
The National Guard Patriot Academy hosted its 3rd Annual Operation Christmas Blessing Monday to provide a hot meal, household goods and toys for children whose families have fallen on hard times. For them, accepting help was not easy to do.
Santa Claus reads the "Soldiers" Night Before Christmas to a group of children attending the 3rd Annual Operation Christmas Blessing, Monday, Dec. 12, 2011, at the Muscatatuck Urban Training Complex in Butlerville, Ind.
Photo by Army Capt. Kyle Key
“It's been a horrible year,” said Stacia Raines of North Vernon. “My children's father ran out on us, and he hasn't paid child support. Shortly after, I lost my job. I didn't know how I was going to provide for Christmas this year. I don't know how I was chosen for this event or how they knew, but it's definitely a blessing,” said Raines.
More than 200 soldiers, staff and cadre, along with the Jennings County United Way and North Vernon Rotary Club, packed the halls and hosted a Christmas feast complete with turkey, trimmings and cranberry sauce.
The Patriot Academy band and choir led the evening with Christmas carols and holiday music. The most melodious sound came from children as they greeted Santa Claus.
Soldiers, who sponsored the children, served as Santa's helpers, but none were as eager to help as student Pvt. Evan A. Dancer from Eagle River, Alaska.
“I have a reindeer with the same name as you,” Santa told Dancer. “You look familiar. Where are you from?”
Dancer said, “I'm from Alaska.”
“It's warm up there this time of year,” Santa remarked with a jolly laugh.
Dancer's upbringing, however, was less than jolly. At three months old, he spent a few weeks recovering from malnutrition and dehydration. His mother died of an overdose, and Dancer was rescued from his crib. His father tried to raise him, often “couch surfing” at friends' houses until he got in trouble with the law.
Dancer's father fled to Alaska with him and his four brothers. After his father's situation unraveled, he went into foster care at age 11. Life enough was full of hard knocks, and then he quit high school at age 16. When he turned 19, his guardian, Russell Pressley, knew he needed something more and urged him to look into the National Guard.
“I'm overwhelmed at where I am with my life now,” said Dancer. “I actually feel like I have a lot of support and a new family through the National Guard. I looked at the kids tonight and just saw a lot of myself in them. For me being there, I was able to give some influence to the kids. I told them, ‘It won't always be like this ... things will turn around.'"
Dancer is scheduled to graduate in the spring of 2012 with his high school diploma and will have earned one semester of college credits. He is a member of the Alaska Army National Guard in Wasilla and will attend his advanced individual training next year to become a diesel mechanic.
The Patriot Academy soldiers personally went out on a Christmas buying spree and purchased gifts for their sponsored children. They spent at least 20 dollars on each child, but some felt compelled to do much more. One soldier, who wished to remain anonymous, spent $300 of his paycheck to provide for one of the families.
Many of the students at the Patriot Academy felt a common bond with the sponsored families. At nine years of age, student Pvt. Kyle R. Moore, from Brockton, Mass., was homeless and found shelter with his mother and sister in an old pop-up tent camper. Although they didn't have much, they had each other.
“It made me feel so good to see some of the expressions on the children's faces as they opened up their presents,” said Moore. “But what struck me most was how these parents were able to smile, because without us they would not necessarily be able to afford them.”
Throughout the night, a positive energy filled the room. Some called it generosity, gratitude, but to the ten families who were hosted at Operation Christmas Blessing, they called it the Christmas spirit. The children were thankful for what they had.
“Christmas is about being with family and friends,” said Sydney Tolbert.
“But it's not all about the presents,” said her friend Alexis Porton.
“It's about the birth of Jesus!” they both said.
According to Patriot Academy Commandant Lt. Col. Wm. Kenny Freeman, the season for giving and being involved in the community is year round.
“Our soldiers have contributed thousands of community service hours to the people of Jennings County,” Freeman said. “But what they've given us in return is immeasurable. Tonight was just one way we could show our appreciation to the community.”
Raines just received news of a job offer and will start a job in Jennings County after the beginning of the New Year.
“Things are looking up,” said Raines. “And what the Patriot Academy did was pretty awesome. It was a nice thing that you did for us (laughter). I don't even know how to explain it.”
More photos available below
By Army Capt. Kyle Key
National Guard Patriot Academy
Provided through DVIDS
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