Giving the gifts of smiles

The Catawba County chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police collected more than 100 toys and stuffed animals to donate to sick and needy children and adults spending the holiday season in the hospital.

FOP volunteers distributed the gifts Tuesday at Catawba Valley Medical Center and Frye Regional Medical Center. Santa and Mrs. Claus were also on hand to give away the gifts and make recipients smile.

"We're here to see smiles," said FOP president Carl Pope, who is retired from the Highway Patrol. "Whether it's from the adults or the kids, we just want to see smiles."

This is the FOP's 21st year collecting and donating toys as gifts during the holidays.

"We always wish there were no children here," said Carroll Darnell, a FOP member. "But we're glad to help when we can."

The FOP placed collection bins at area businesses, including Fast Lane restaurant in Hickory and Visions Hair Design in Newton.

Devin Ekanayake and Marc Johnson, from Fast Lane, also attended the gift distribution.

"We're good friends (with the volunteers), and we're just here to help out some needy kids," Johnson said.

Pope's wife, Jammie, said the community was overwhelmingly supportive of the FOP's mission to provide a gift for the needy this holiday season, despite the economic downturn.

"They really pulled together, but we've had a lot more families (needing help) this year," said Jammie, who dressed up as Mrs. Santa Claus for the toy distribution. "We've had help from people we don't even know."

Jammie said she relied on word of mouth and Facebook pages to get the word out about the FOP's need for donations.

Each patient also received a treat bag filled with candy, fruit and other goodies. Darnell collected and organized the treat bags from items donated by local grocery stores.

"I just hit them all and see what they can donate," he said.

Jammie said she never grows tired of helping needy families at Christmas time, and through the years, she acquired a collection of stories about her experiences with the FOP.

She recalled visiting one woman in the hospital who was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

"She was so depressed," Jammie said. "The nurse said she wouldn't see anybody."

The cancer patient agreed, however, to see Jammie and Mr. Claus. When the pair walked into the woman's hospital room, Jammie said the patient's face lit up with a smile. Santa Claus gave the woman a doll, and she asked Jammie and Santa to pray together with her.

"That really means a lot," Jammie said, fighting back tears.

The group of FOP volunteers made their way through CVMC on Tuesday, first distributing gifts to the hospital's two pediatric patients then making their way to the cancer floor.

Santa Claus, also known as Gary Freund, gave each child he saw a stuffed animal and offered everyone a "Merry Christmas."