HARRISON COUNTY, MS (WLOX) - Thousands of needy children across South Mississippi probably think Santa dropped by their house Monday. That's because they now have presents to open on Christmas morning. Those gifts actually came from many generous people and businesses.
There was a lot of excitement on the first day of the Salvation Army's Angel Tree distribution.
Parents lined-up early outside a warehouse on Division Street in Biloxi. Inside, Santa's elves scurried about, making sure every box had a gift inside. At 9am, the doors opened. The Salvation Army staff and volunteers started distributing toys and other goodies to nearly 650 families.
"A little over 1,500 children in Harrison County alone, that's the biggest it's ever been for Harrison County. We just see so many families that are struggling to be able to make ends meet," said Major Beth Sturdivant, Associate Area Commander for The Salvation Army.
"A lot of families that have come in to sign up with us are families that have provided Christmas for other families and now they've found themselves in need of Christmas assistance this year. So it's very difficult for a lot of people."
Many parents' eyes lit up as they picked-up gifts for their little ones. Jessica Jimmerson of Gulfport has two young children.
"They're going to love them. They're going to be so excited," she said. "I told them I was coming to see Santa today, so they're going to be really excited about this. I really believe that."
"I'm going to wrap them and put it under the Christmas tree for the kids and wait until they get home and say, 'Look at what Santa brought!'" said Tawaii McWilliam, a single mother of four.
Even the 122 children who were not adopted through the Angel Tree Program will receive a gift, thanks to people like Rebekah Winge. She dropped off a load of toys that were donated by the Air National Guard Base in Gulfport.
"We're going to start doing it every year. I think this was kind of a late notice, so I think next year we're going to try to get some more," she said. "Merry Christmas!"
The outpouring of generosity and the joy on people's faces really touched Major Beth Sturdivant. No wonder she called Christmas her favorite time of the year.
"It thrills my heart to be able to know that children are going to have Christmas who may not otherwise be able to do that, to know that on Christmas morning there is something that they're going to open," she said with tears in her eyes.
"The Angel Tree helps us out so much. They're wonderful people and we're very blessed to have them in our community," said Jimmerson.
"This is the first year I've got toys for my kids for the Angel Tree and they'll be very excited to get these toys," said McWilliams.
The distribution continues Tuesday in Harrison, Hancock, Jackson, and George Counties. Stone County's distribution is Saturday. More than 3,500 children across the coast will receive gifts this year.
The Salvation Army is still accepting donations to help parents who didn't get a chance to sign up early, and those who've suddenly lost their jobs or are battling a serious illness.