Friday, November 18, 2011

Tennessee Town Prepares For Annual Santa Train To Give Children A Merry Christmas

They call it Santa's workshop.

For a few hours Wednesday, the front porch of the Eastman Road Food City grocery store was transformed into a dual assembly line where some 200 volunteers of all ages opened, packed, stacked and recycled with ballet-like precision. Their task, preparing much of the cargo for Saturday's 69th annual excursion of the Santa Train.

A joint effort of CSX Corp., the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce and Food City, the train is scheduled to make its traditional 110-mile trek distributing gifts at three stops in Eastern Kentucky, nine in Southwest Virginia, and Waycross on the Tennessee-Virginia line before returning to Kingsport. It began in 1943 as a way for Kingsport businesses to thank customers across Appalachia for their support.

Volunteer Catherine Tucker of Kingsport -- sporting a colorful Christmas hat and sweater -- took her place near the head of the candy line, dumping handfuls of treats into a seemingly endless procession of red and tan plastic totes. Wednesday marked her 15th year to volunteer for the effort.

"I love the fact that it's a community event, there are so many people involved in it and we can give back to people in Kentucky and Virginia. To tell them we appreciate the support they've been and the business they do in this area. This is our gift back to them. And I love Christmas," Tucker said without taking her attention from the task at hand.

Nearby, Bill and Jan Helton of Kingsport arrived early for their first visit to Santa's workshop and began by opening hundreds of packages of candy.

"This is our first year. We just wanted to help out," Bill Helton said.

On the opposite side of the assembly line, 86-year-old Bob White took his traditional spot amid a long line of volunteers.

"I can't remember how long I've been doing this -- a long time," the smiling White said. "It's fabulous. It's fantastic to do something for the young people."

On one side of the store, Tucker, the Heltons and White were among those hurriedly adding more and more candy and snacks to advancing bins, before each was closed and loaded onto a waiting tractor-trailer. On the other side, volunteers formed lines and walked between bins dropping in stuffed animals, toy cars, games, books and school supplies.

A steady stream of emptied cardboard boxes filled two large recycling bins.

Light showers failed to dampen anyone's enthusiasm, but did make the task a bit more crowded as hundreds of cardboard boxes were moved further beneath the awning to keep them dry.

Shoppers, meanwhile, maneuvered their carts past the feverish work, with many stopping to observe.

"What are they doing?" asked one man.

"It's for the Santa Train," replied another.

Previously estimated at 15 tons of goodies, this year's cargo will likely exceed that total, Santa Train Coordinator Jamie Horton of Food City said.

"We've probably grown to 20 to 25 tons of items," Horton said. "Kids Wish Network, which is one of our sponsors, has donated generously. It's been wonderful having them join us."

The Florida-based nonprofit has nearly doubled its previous contribution, donating more than $500,000 worth of toys.

Collecting all of those items is a nearly year-round task for Horton and Ed Moore, Food City's director of special projects.

It will all be distributed Saturday at stops along the route and when the train returns to Kingsport in time for that city's traditional Christmas parade.

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