Church takes Christmas to an Appalachian town

December 22, 1993|By Angela Winter Ney | Angela Winter Ney,Staff writer

Thanks to a Maryland church, 98 families in an impoverished Appalachian town will open presents this Christmas.

Members of the Heritage Church of God in Severn packed an 18-wheeler truck with Christmas presents last week for 295 residents of Wilcoe, W.Va., a small coal-mining town in the mountains.

More than 40 church members drove eight hours over the weekend to deliver food, clothing and the money with which to buy each family a turkey. They also took furniture for a family whose home burned several weeks ago.

Tammie Gaskins, a 15-year-old in the church, traveled with her family to share Christmas with two young girls in Wilcoe.

The teen-ager took nearly $200 worth of gifts she and a friend had purchased for two sisters they met last summer.

"My friend Angela Benner and I 'adopted' these two sisters whose family we met last summer when we worked in their home," says Tammie.

"They're both 7; they're 11 months apart. I baby-sat and cleaned house [to buy the presents], and Angela raked leaves."

Tammie and Angela bought the girls Christmas stockings filled with goodies, hand-painted Christmas shirts and black velvet dresses with white lace colors, along with tights and hair ornaments to match.

"We had a ball," says Tammie. "We've been looking forward to it for a month."

The Heritage congregation decided several years ago to direct its "mission" efforts at needy areas in the United States, rather than sending money overseas, says Larry Lindsay, a church member who helped organize the trip.

"If you could see how appreciative these people are, you'd understand why we go," he says.

"When we unloaded the truck, women were crying because we'd sent sanitary napkins to them. They value anything they can't buy through food stamps, because they just don't have cash. One little boy was excited over a pair of jeans. You don't think of young boys caring about pants."

Relationship is year around

Heritage church "adopted" the depressed town three years ago, and members have visited at least twice a year since.

In August, church members remodeled homes, putting on new roofs, rain gutters and shingles. They cleaned houses and built a handicapped ramp for the Wilcoe Church of God.

"You can't imagine living like some of these people," says Mr. Lindsay.

Some Wilcoe homes have no indoor plumbing and rely on bathtubs that must be filled with water carried in from outside pumps, church members say.

Many in Wilcoe -- a suburb of Gary -- lost their jobs when U.S. Steel closed one of the area's largest mining plants about 10 years ago, says Ava Triplett, the church clerk of the Wilcoe

Church of God.

Mrs. Triplett said her husband found work in another mine, but many of the community's working class had to leave when U.S. Steel pulled out.

"We have a great deal of older people, retired," she says, "and a lot of people on public assistance."

Five churches within 14 miles of Wilcoe area joined to collect the names of the area's neediest residents, then passed the information on to Heritage.

Members of the Maryland church could either adopt a family or simply buy gifts from the lists.

Recipients of the Christmas gifts did not have to belong to a particular church.

Sunday, the Heritage team held a service and a Christmas party in Wilcoe to distribute the gifts.

Tears of joy

"We have seen children that may not have had a Christmas otherwise. I cried when one child came in and saw the church full of gifts," says Mrs. Triplett.

"She threw out her arms and said, 'Oh look! Are those for me?' It was clearly the biggest thing that ever happened in her life. She held on to her package of gifts and wouldn't let go."

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