DOBSON — Sheriff Graham Atkinson said this year’s Christmas Toy Drive effort, which provides toys and food to needy children and families during the Christmas season, was an example of receiving more than they give.
“It went extraordinarily well,” he said Friday. “We were able to serve by far the most kids we have ever served.”
Atkinson said this year the effort provided toys to a total of 515 children in the county. “And we were even able to expand the food boxes we gave out to 250 from last year’s 225,” he said.
“We had people who knew of children who weren’t on our original list of 510, and they made donations for those children,” he said. “They wanted us to include those children and they came through and gave us $1,000 if we included the extra five children. That worked out great for everyone.”
For Atkinson and the hundreds of volunteers, citizens who donated and deputies who helped with the effort, the annual holiday drive is about the true spirit of the season.
Always willing to talk, the sheriff became unusually quiet.
“That’s a tough one,” he said about why he puts so much time and effort into the annual holiday drive. “I guess the best answer is looking back to when it first started in the early 1990s the need was there. It was obvious, but there was no one filling that need. So we did.”
And the effort has grown exponentially over the years.
“It’s gone from one kid that first year to the more than 500 this year, and everyone involved in it will tell you it’s the biggest blessing you can receive over the Christmas season,” he said. “It’s also a great way to remind us what Christmas is about — not so much the gifts themselves but giving and loving each other.”
Atkinson said that while his office often receives the credit there are literally hundreds of volunteers and donors who help make it a reality.
“The school systems do a tremendous amount of work ensuring we pick children who truly need the help,” he said. “The people in my office help by volunteering their time and often their personal equipment, but most of the work is done by people and organizations in the community.”
For the sheriff, raising the money year after year isn’t much of a problem, thanks to the generosity of the community.
“My biggest concern each year isn’t so much the money, because the Lord will provide the money,” he said. “It’s more about having enough people to get it done.”
That wasn’t much of a problem this year.
“We had about 90 people show up at 8 a.m., on a Saturday morning to help us put together food boxes, and we ended up putting together 250 boxes of food in about 44 minutes,” he said. “We were loaded, cleaned up and gone in just over an hour.”
Atkinson said that often, the stories he hears during the annual drive are heartwarming.
“We live in the best county in the world,” he said quietly. “This has to be the most giving county in the world. We often have people show up to help us that are, unbeknownst to them, going to be recipients.
“We had one child who would go to school every day and would go around the vending machines looking for change he could donate,” Atkinson added. “He had no idea he was on the list of people who were going to receive gifts. He just wanted to give to others.”
The sheriff said it was nearly enough to break his heart.
“The people in the schools were telling us what he was doing, so we made sure he was as taken care of as he could be,” he said. “He just wanted to participate. He knew what it was like to be in that position of need, and wanted to help.”
The sheriff told another story about a 17-year-old girl.
“The only thing she asked for was an axe,” he said. “Now, being in law enforcement I was worried that we had a serial killer on our hands, so I contacted the people in the schools. It turns out that her family was hurting, and someone had donated wood for them to burn. The wood was too big to fit in their stove, so this girl asked for an axe. Just an axe to help keep her family warm.
“She got the axe, but she also got a lot of things a 17-year-old girl would want.”
Stories like those, Atkinson said, illustrate why they do it year after year.
And then he laughed.
“We’re told we’re supposed to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit those in prison,” he said. “We do the feeding and clothing one day a year, and the other 364 we spend trying to make sure there are people in prison to be visited.”
Reach Keith Strange at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-1929.