It’s only September, but Christmas has been on Rick Herring’s mind for months.
On Tuesday, he spoke to a crowd of more than 100 at St. John United Methodist Church for the annual White Christmas kickoff event of Action Ministries-Augusta, formerly Augusta Urban Ministries. Since 1975, the organization has provided Christmas gifts to children in low-income families. Last year, 800 families with 1,800 children received gifts donated by area churches, businesses and individuals.
Herring, the executive director of the local ministry, introduced a new CEO, the Rev. John Moeller, who oversees Action Ministries throughout north Georgia. The nonprofit operates in Athens, Atlanta, Decatur, Gainesville and Rome, as well as Augusta.
Augusta is the only one of Action Ministries’ cities to hold a White Christmas program.
That will change this holiday, as other cities begin to model their programs off the success of the ministry in Augusta, said Moeller, a United Methodist pastor who joined the staff of Action Ministries in May.
“We’ll launch this program in Gainesville this Christmas,” he said. “It’s a direct result of the amazing work being done here in Augusta by Rick and his team. I would not be surprised if it spreads like wildfire.”
Moeller, who previously worked with MUST Ministries in Atlanta, isn’t the only change at Action Ministries this year, Herring said.
For decades, the ministry has gone by the name Augusta Urban Ministries. In February, the organization, as well as partners around the state, changed the name to Action Ministries.
The name Augusta Urban Ministries was too limiting, considering the agency also serves rural populations, including those in McBean, Thomson and Hephzibah, Moeller said.
“The name Action Ministries embodies what it is we do every day, which is to serve the community,” Moeller said. “We serve people wherever they might be.”
The group also has a new logo for its White Christmas program, which it hopes to use to raise the profile of the annual giveaway, Moeller said.
“We want to blow the top off and let the world know we’re here,” he said. “ We want to help people find ways to plug in. We want to give the community a meaningful place to come and serve. It makes Christmas more meaningful for everyone involved.”
From Thursday through Oct. 18, the ministry will accept applications from those seeking assistance at Christmas. Children from low-income families who are under the age of 15 can qualify and must be signed up by a parent, grandparent or guardian.
Churches and businesses sign up to sponsor children and shop for gifts throughout November. Sponsors bring the gifts to Action Ministries-Augusta on Hale Street in early December. They’re distributed a week later to families in need.
Gifts for each child previously totaled $40 to $60, but has been raised to $50 to $70 this year, Herring said. That’s because bicycles are still the most popular item requested by children at Christmas.
“Last year, we gave away 400 new bicycles,” he said. “I’d like to see just as many or more this year.”
About 90 percent of those the ministry serves qualify under the lowest income bracket of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines. That’s about $11,000 a year for a single-person household and up to $22,000 a year for a family of eight.
“We wouldn’t be here if there weren’t the need,” Herring said. “We have to encourage some of our clients to include at least one item on their wish lists that would be considered a toy. We buy necessities, yes. But it’s Christmas, and they deserve at least one toy.”