Over 60 Osceola County families in need received clothes and Christmas gifts on Dec. 14, as part of the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree program.
A collection of volunteers handed out large plastic bags marked with the Salvation Army’s familiar red and white logo during a distribution event at Plaza Del Sol in Kissimmee.
One of the gifts for 7-year-old Arianna Rodriguez was too big to fit in a bag. It was a brand new white bicycle, complete with a small wicker basket in the front and pink handlebar grips.
Rodriguez’s mother, Maria Cruz Rodriguez, picked up the items. She said she learned about the Angel Tree program after seeing a flyer posted in her neighborhood Publix.
“This will make our Christmas so much brighter,” the mother of two said as she rolled the small bicycle outside. “She’s wanted this for so long. This is wonderful.”
The Salvation Army’s Angel Tree program provides new clothing and toys for children of families in need through the support of local donors.
The Angel Tree event in Central Florida kicked off Nov. 10 at the Mall at Millenia in Orlando, where a special tree was decorated with numbered paper angel tags that included the first name, age and gender of a child or senior citizen in need of gifts.
Those wishing to donate could remove one or more tags from the tree and purchase the appropriate gifts before returning them to the mall.
Last year, more than 7,000 gift requests nationwide were fulfilled for children and seniors who would have otherwise gone without presents on Christmas.
Locally, over 60 families from Osceola County were included on the Angel Tree this year.
“We want to grow that number next year, but this is a great start,” said Central Florida Captain Jessie Chapman.
Both Chapman and her husband, Ken, were assigned to the Central Florida region in June, and have been hard at work ever since. The couple has worked for the Salvation Army in Tulsa, Okla. and Jackson, Miss. for nine years before re-locating to Orlando. Chapman said she wants to bring programs and services they organized in other communities to Orange and Osceola counties.
“We’re still learning what the specific needs are here,” she said. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.”
For example, in Tulsa, Chapman said they learned that many low-income individuals couldn’t read, so the Chapmans launched literacy and education programs to help struggling families land better paying jobs. They also organized financial education classes to teach people how to make better decisions with their money while building credit for the future.
The idea, she said, was to provide a hand up, not a hand out.
“We want these families who are receiving gifts from the Angel Tree this year to one day fulfill the wishes of someone else in need,” Chapman said.
The Salvation Army opened a local service center branch in Kissimmee near Valencia College in October to provide locals with things like emergency rent and utility assistance, a food pantry, clothing vouchers and more.
Leadership at the nonprofit organization – including the Chapmans and Kissimmee Service Center Director Alvis Gonzales – said they have major plans to expand the group’s reach even more next year.
“We’re working hard every day,” Gonzales said at the event. “This is just the beginning.”
The group wants residents to get to know the Salvation Army on a personal level, so that they have another place to turn to when they need help.
Local government also pitched in. Both Osceola County Commissioner Peggy Choudhry and Kissimmee Commissioner Olga Gonzalez volunteered time to distribute gifts and clothing to families.
Choudhry said it’s important for local leaders to step up and support organizations like the Salvation Army who are trying to help bridge gaps in government assistance.
“Currently, we lack emergency programs and assistance and don’t even have anything citizens can turn to seven days a week,” Choudhry said. “Organizations like this will help people get back on their feet and provide them with the services they need.”
For more information about the Salvation Army Service Center, call 407-870-7643.