Granting wishes

Inside a sprawling warehouse two weeks before Christmas, there were shiny, pink bicycles with frilly baskets, boxed up basketballs with pint-sized hoops and who knows what else concealed by neatly folded wrapping paper.

The presents were lined up in rows and assigned numbers, waiting for those with empty spaces under their Christmas trees to take them home.

"My youngest said Santa Claus isn't real because he never got what he wanted before this," Tina Allen said as she stood outside Augusta Urban Ministries' Warehouse Saturday. "Now he'll actually have a real Christmas."

For 20 years, Augusta Urban Ministries has collected toys and donations for children who otherwise would have nothing to unwrap on Christmas morning. Volunteers handed out more than 4,000 toys to 801 families Saturday for this year's White Christmas program.

Since her husband got laid off from his cabinetry job last year, Allen said, she has struggled to pay rent and water bills, let alone try to buy Christmas presents.

"It just tore me to pieces thinking they weren't going to have nothing for Christmas," Allen said of her four children. "I'd just cry."

"I'd cry, too, if I didn't have anything for Christmas," said Allen's daughter Salina, 8, as she clung to her mother outside. "All the other kids have gifts."

Ministry director Rick Herring said while his group focuses on aid for the homeless most of the year, December is dedicated to helping children.

Families begin applying for the gift giveaway in October and qualify based on income.

Parents fill out a wish list and request gifts for their children. They must prove their household runs on $11,000 for one person or $22,000 for up to eight people.

Since October, donors have adopted those families' wish lists.

"It's a good, good, day," Herring said.

As families lined up to collect their gifts, about 150 volunteers worked like Santa's helpers to grab ticket numbers from parents, run in the warehouse to collect the gifts and carry the presents to cars.

Carl Miller, an eighth-grader at Tutt Middle School, volunteered with 10 other Builders Club members to help pass out gifts to families.

He ran through the warehouse clutching the families' numbered tickets used to identify their presents and emerged wheeling bikes and carrying boxes to parents.

"It's pretty fun giving out gifts," he said, catching his breath after loading boxes into a mother's car. "I just like helping people. It feels good, and it makes me glad I have stuff today."