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Angels Helping Sarah's Santa Completes 18th Year of Christmas Cheer

By Anne Waits
web posted December 23, 2013

JOHNSTON A row of shiny new bicycles and brightly colored packages lined the gym floor of JET Middle School Friday afternoon. Still-waiting-to-be-wrapped bunches of clothing and toys took up several rows of bleachers on the other side. Stations were set up in the middle, where volunteers busily sorted and wrapped gifts so that Edgefield County's not-so-fortunate children could have a merry Christmas.

Debbie Courtney, assistant principal at JET and founder of "Angels Helping Sarah's Santa" said the organization has steadily grown since it began 18 years ago. "We started with eight children," she said. "Now, we serve between 125 and 150 kids a year. I am just overwhelmed with the response of the community. The 'angels' are the community members who make it happen."

Contributors include but are not limited to the Federal Correctional Institution in Edgefield who bought bicycles and put them together; Mount Vintage Women's Association who helped with toys and monetary donations; St. Mary's Catholic, Edgefield Baptist and many of the other churches in the county; Palmetto Dance Academy; Pine Ridge Country Club; and many, many individuals.

"It has been said, 'It takes a village to raise a child,'" Courtney said. "I say, "It takes a community coming together to provide Christmas for those who might not otherwise have anything."

Courtney knows firsthand what it is like to be on the receiving end of a helping hand.
"A long time ago, about 1989 or 1990, I was going through a divorce and an anonymous someone blessed my four children with a wonderful Christmas," she said. "To this day, I don't know the identity of the person or persons. But I told my mom that one day I would show my appreciation by giving back to the community."

Three years later, she started "Angels Helping Sarah's (her mother's name) Santa." Many of her close friends and relatives have become involved also. "All of my family members volunteer in some way," she said. "They wrap, purchase items, deliver, whatever."

Her sister, Roseann Sexton, said being able to help the kids has been a rewarding experience for her. "I volunteer every year," she said. "I'm out here until it's over. Fortunately, I have a boss who lets me get off work to come out here and do this. For me, it's important to let the kids know there are people who care." She said her daughter teaches at JET and she had a child in her class who was a recipient.
"He came back to school talking about it and was so excited," she said.

Courtney said the process actually begins in January each year.

"We start collecting things for our annual yard sale which is held in November," she said. "The community donates unwrapped gifts by dropping them off at JET. Any wish that is not fulfilled, we go out and purchase with funds from the yard sale."

Applications start in October and recipients are chosen based on financial need.
"We try to get each child at least one item on their wish list, which they fill out along with clothing sizes and so forth during the application process," Courtney said. "We don't do electronics. One of our goals is to keep them warm, so in addition to a toy or wish list item, every child gets an outfit or a coat. They also get a stocking with hygiene items."

She stressed that theirs is an organization that strives to assist families in getting back on their feet and not one that becomes a crutch. After three years of being served, the applicant is no longer chosen for assistance.

On the last day of school before the holidays each year, volunteers gather in the gym after school and wrap until finished. It usually takes three days, she said.

Courtney's sons, son-in-law and daughter deliver throughout the county in trucks and trailers (which they call "Santa's Sleigh"). They try to deliver as close to Christmas Eve as possible.

"Many of the kids think it's Santa coming." she said. "Their excitement makes it all worthwhile."

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