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Photo contributed by Sheriff Steve Wilson / A previous year's Al Millard Stocking Full of Love toy store is seen. Donations are still being sought for this year's outreach in both Walker and Catoosa counties. With the uncertainty of stock availability and delivery times, Catoosa County Sheriff Gary Sisk encourages families to pick up a toy or two whenever they're out shopping.

Normally around this time of year, Catoosa County Sheriff Gary Sisk's phone is ringing off the hook for social engagements related to the Stocking Full of Love program.

In operation since 1986, the nonprofit outreach operated by the sheriff's office provides toys for needy families in the area. The Al Millard Memorial Stocking Full of Love program, founded in 1989, does the same for families in Walker County.

While the need for support persists this year, many of the typical opportunities for fundraisers and toy drives have not happened due to the pandemic. The volunteer groups rely heavily on social clubs, schools, civic groups and churches for financial and toy donations, which often coincide with holiday gatherings.

"Usually, the first few weeks of December our calendars are packed with events we're going to," Sisk said of himself and Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson. "But my calendar is not that full this year because a lot of those things aren't going on."

Q for Kids, a new event held in partnership with Walker's Stocking Full of Love, helped to fill the gap. The barbecue sale in late November netted each nonprofit roughly $2,000, according to Sisk.

"We planned on a four-hour event and we were (sold) out in two. We had over 1,000 pounds of barbecue that we went through," he said, thanking Wardlaw's Lucky Eye Q, Food City and other partners for their contributions to the cause. "It took about three days' worth of prep work but it was well worth it for sure."

With the window closing before each program starts disbursing gifts to families, Wilson and Sisk are appealing to individuals for help.

"We're always apprehensive about it [donations] coming in, but it's been steady. We're thankful for that," said Wilson, who is readying to welcome families to the pop-up toy store on Dec. 12.

Catoosa faces more uncertainty before its distribution, scheduled for Dec. 19.

Help out

Catoosa: Bring new toys to the Catoosa County Sheriff’s Office, 5842 Highway 41 in Ringgold, or call 706-935-2424 to arrange for them to be picked up at your home or business. Mail monetary donations, payable to Catoosa County Stocking Full of Love, to Catoosa County Sheriff’s Office, P.O. Box 909, Ringgold, Ga., 30736. Names of children in need (ages 12 months to 14 years) are being accepted through Dec. 11. Call 706-965-7138 or 706-965-7139 between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Walker: Mail donations to Al Millard Memorial Stocking Full of Love, P.O. Box 767, LaFayette, Ga., 30728. To volunteer, email stockingfulloflove@gmail.com. Distribution is Saturday, Dec. 12 from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Oakwood Baptist Church in Chickamauga.

 

"All the schools usually do toy drives ... so there is still a question mark about that," Sisk said. "There is some concern if school doesn't stay in until holiday break. And two, we don't have as many students in each school. Some are doing hybrid; others are doing distance learning."

While donations are requested by Dec. 11, both stressed that any toys or money that come in after will still serve the cause.

Catoosa may well outpace its average of 1,100-1,200 children helped this year, said Sisk.

"The numbers are coming in quite faster than they have in years past," he said. " ... There are already over 800 children and we've still got one more week to go."

Wilson said he welcomed a record "2,000 (families) in 2010 during the height of the recession," and expected to see similar numbers this year, but so far has received around 1,400 requests for assistance, which he said is typical.

What won't be typical for the Walker program is how the toy store is operated. Each family will be allowed to send only one adult in to select three gifts and stocking stuffers for their children. Masks will be required, temperatures will be taken and social distancing enforced.

Sisk's team is still working out the particulars, though plans are to have an outside table where recipients can check in, with an option for those with COVID-19 symptoms to text or call from their vehicle. As they have done for the past three decades, volunteers — typically officers and their families — will then deliver bags of age-appropriate gifts to the families waiting outside.

"Whatever tweaks we're having to make this year, I hope we don't have to carry them forward, because it's not conducive to a festive holiday season," said Sisk. "It's all about coming together and people sharing.

"We've done this 33 years and learned a lot of lessons along the way. This is blowing all that up. It's almost like the first year again because of all the unknowns."

Contact Jennifer Bardoner at jbardoner@timesfreepress.com.

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