Story by CATHERINE HOSMAN
Photos by JULIE NABOURS and JOSH QUINN
Every year Christmas is a little brighter for the underserved children of Bell County thanks to Santa Pal.
Founded by Frank W. Mayborn 84 years ago, Santa Pal stretches across the county to serve children, with the help of many social organizations including the Temple Kiwanis Club and the H.E.L.P. Centers in Killeen and Temple.
Santa Pal organizers look for children up to age 12, who most need the help.
“Some kids get nothing. This helps the children to enjoy a Christmas,” said Barbara Burtchell, a member of the Temple Kiwanis Club since 1991 and the Santa Pal Chair since 1999.
Families fill out applications at the H.E.L.P. Center in their community and can list their needs, wishes and wants on the form.
For some it’s a matter of socks and clothes. Others might need school supplies. Girls want dolls that look like them and boys want trucks, cars and video games.
“People tell you their stories on their applications,” she said. “They tell you the hardships they are going through. Some need car repairs, others need help to pay bills, or there is no daddy.”
For one woman, it was a matter of life and death.
“Two years ago a grandmother came in,” Burtchell recalled, tears welling in her eyes. “Her daughter had been killed in a car wreck and she was taking care of her granddaughter. She wanted her little granddaughter to have something. I was blessed when she came in, and I hugged her. I wanted her little granddaughter to have something.”
“I love helping others,” said Charlene Thompson of the Temple H.E.L.P. Center who has worked side by side with Burtchell on Santa Pal. “When it comes to helping children, I am a great advocate for children. I reach out to parents, single parents, parents with two paychecks who still can’t afford to buy their children things.”
Applicants are reviewed on a first-come, first-serve basis and Kiwanis members make sure that all the kids get the gifts they want and need. Through monetary donations and gift drop boxes placed around town, volunteers try to fulfill the wishes listed on the families’ applications. Drop box donations continue through Dec. 16.
Burtchell picks up applications weekly from the H.E.L.P. beginning in early November.
“Depending on funds we are limited to how many people we can supply,” Burtchell said.
But that hasn’t stopped the Kiwanians and volunteers from doing everything they can to fulfill the wishes of every applicant, whether there is one child or multiple children in the family.
Volunteer shoppers choose a family, then receive a $30 gift card for each child. Using money left over from last year, Burtchell bought 150 gift cards for a total of $4,500. Although gifts are limited to $30 per child, on occasion, a Kiwanis member will open his or her pocketbook and sponsor an entire family to include a tree, decorations, gifts for the family to put under the tree and food for a holiday meal.
Volunteers often come with their own children to help pass out the numbered bags of gifts. Burtchell said their kids realize how much they have and how little others get.
“It’s rewarding to serve and see the smiles. Some of the people have nothing. They work hard but humble themselves to put themselves in the system,” Burtchell said.
In 2016, 113 families and 244 children applied for help with Christmas gifts. This year Burtchell is hoping to serve 200 families and double the number of children, depending monetary donations and toys.
Although she is affectionately referred to as Ms. Santa Pal, Burtchell is quick to point out that the program is a group effort that enlists the help of Kiwanians and their families, the H.E.L.P Center and volunteers that offer their assistance to shop, sort, and hand out the bags of gifts to families when they come into pick them up at a Santa Pal Headquarters.
Some parents speak their gratitude, and others are speechless, Burtchell said. “They cry, we cry.”
“When a family is not able to pick up the gifts they bring them here (to the H.E.L.P. Center),” Thompson said. “It’s a delight to see the parents, the kids, they are so thankful. Parents hug you and cry. They are so humble and grateful. People are really grateful.”
Burtchell said the committee, club members and volunteers try to bring smiles to the faces of the children and parents. One year the club was able to give away repurposed bicycles. Each child that had an application on file received a bike. One family with six children received an equal amount of bicycles.
For Burtchell and her helpers, the reward comes when the applicant families come to pick up their children’s toys.
“Christmas is all about giving — giving of yourself, helping others. Especially for those of us who are fortunate (to give),” she said. “As long as there is a need, and Temple has deep pockets, we will be there.”