Until Friday, Melissa Hullender was in Christmas crisis.
Days before, with little more than a week before toys were due beneath the tree, the mother of two carved out time to go last minute shopping for her children. That's when she discovered all her money was gone.
"My check card got stolen with all my money from work. By the time I found out, they had done [already] cleared my account -- wiped it all out," she said Friday.
The theft meant her 10-year-old son, Derrick, and her 15-month-old daughter, Alyssa, were in danger of going without for the holidays. Hullender, who works part time at Walmart, didn't have funds in reserve, had no toys for her children and was running out of time.
Fortunately for Hullender, along with nearly 80 other families with almost 200 children in the Greater Chattanooga and North Georgia areas this Christmas, a group of volunteers is ready to help people just like her.
United Way of Greater Chattanooga and Knights of Columbus Holy Family Council 6099 held their annual Giving Tree event Thursday and Friday to help families who found themselves giftless days before yuletide. The program specifically helped families in need find gifts for children at the very last minute, said Sheila Moore, director of United Way's Center for Nonprofits.
"There are many toy drives done by our other agencies, but people don't realize for many of those, people have to register as early as October," Moore said. "Giving Tree is for people who fall through the cracks or become unemployed suddenly."
Moore said some of the families served Friday called the United Way 211 line as early as that morning for help.
Once families were qualified for the service, by running their names through a computer network shared by social services in the area, Moore said they made appointments to come select toys at the Knights of Columbus order at 7615 Lee Highway.
Parents -- and some children -- browsed through baby dolls, skateboards, footballs, jackets and even Mp3 players, which Moore said were donated to Giving Tree from various community sources, and were allowed two toys per child.
Friday's leftover toys, which remained after the last client family left, were donated to the T.C. Thompson Children's Hospital at Erlanger, Moore said.
Wayne Collins, grand knight of the Knight's Council, which he said was like being president of the Catholic men's service organization, said the group was pleased to be a part of the toy giveaway, especially because many residents are still out of work.
"We had a lot of people here who said, 'We wouldn't have had to do this last year.' The fact is, that this is sort of a last chance for help for people, especially right before the holiday. And that's really what the knights are about," Collins said.
For Hullender, the program meant a great deal. Thanks to Giving Tree, Derrick and Alyssa will find some Hot Wheels, a magic set and a few other special goodies under the tree on Tuesday.