Monday, December 12th, 2011
By William Kincaid
Spirit of the season
Private effort gives Christmas presents
  CELINA - The generosity of Christmas was on full display Sunday afternoon at the Mercer County Fairgrounds as a group of local families distributed several items to people in need.
Toys, clothes, hygiene products and enough food to make a holiday meal were provided to 43 families and 110 children. Santa Claus also appeared.
The day was a cheerful culmination of hundreds of hours of work seeking and gathering donated goods by a band of concerned citizens from Mercer and Auglaize counties under the moniker Friends Helping Friends During the Holidays.
"We're trying not to turn any family away, even if it has to come out of our pockets," group co-organizer Jennifer Dennis said.
Each child was given a bag containing at least three toys and a Christmas stocking, while their parents carried away a bundle of food. People also were able to choose clothes and toys from several tables set up at the fairground community center, where a DJ spun Christmas music and volunteers wore reindeer antlers.
"I received several hugs today," group co-founder Roberta Gehle-Wycuff said.
She said one woman burst into tears knowing she would be able to have a merrier Christmas because of the organization's efforts.
The nascent group, which wants to continue its work after the holidays and may seek an official non-profit status, came together after Dennis said she received several requests for food on her website.
She sought out Gehle-Wycuff, a volunteer with SOURCES Community Network Services and CALL Food Pantry, for her advice and the two, along with Michelle Hughes, started Friends Helping Friends During the Holidays. The group can be found on Facebook.
Working with other like-minded people in Mercer and Auglaize counties, the women began scrambling in November to secure donations.
"It was a big circle of people helping others," Gehle-Wycuff said.
Many of the people who donated the most were struggling themselves, she said, adding many times she would open her door and find random donations on the porch.
Businesses also donated goods, and students and staff at Celina Middle and East elementary schools aided in the effort.
The donated items were stored in Gehle-Wycuff's home. Once the organization knew it had enough, the organizers secured the community center for a holiday party where families could pick up the items confidentially and enjoy themselves.
Some of the group members said they knew there were people in need locally but not to the extent that came forward. They spoke of people who simply needed a Christmas tree.
Twenty-three families were identified as needing help, but more came forward on Sunday afternoon.
Gehle-Wycuff said the organization likely will continue, saying many people can't afford cakes or gifts for their children's birthdays.
Anyone interested in joining Friends Helping Friends During the Holidays can visit the Facebook page or contact one of its members.
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