As the sound of a bell rang through the room on Thursday, children at the Missouri United Methodist Church eagerly looked up from their plates and coloring books.
It could only mean one thing: Santa Claus had arrived.
Santa and his array of gifts were just one attraction at the Voluntary Action Center’s 27th annual Christmas in July event. Around 300 parents and children left with good cheer and lots of toys.
It’s the center’s longest-running fundraiser, Executive Director Nick Foster said.
“People need help at all times of the year, not just the holiday season,” Foster said. “We provide an opportunity to give back to those who are struggling.”
While money was raised through donations and a raffle, the event was really an opportunity for low-income families to enjoy a meal and gifts, including books and toys.
The book “Pete the Cat” was a popular choice among all age groups. All of the toys, including the books, were donations, Foster said. Plastic bats were donated by the Solid Waste Utility.
“They were going to go to the landfill, so we said we’d take them,” said Foster. “We bought wiffle balls to go with them.”
In addition to toys, community members donated prizes for the raffle. Members of the public could purchase one ticket for $10 or 10 for $75. Winners will be announced next week, Foster said.
As the event drew to a close, children ran around, clutching toys in one hand and red-and-green decorative balloons in the other.
Ajahalee Robinson, 10, came to Christmas and July with her grandmother and cousins.
“I liked the toys, the food, seeing Santa,” Ajahalee said. “I liked everything!”
Sa’nya Johnson, 11, said she came to make new friends but stayed for the food.
“I like chicken,” Sa’nya said.
The menu included chicken, beans, salad and dessert. Services Coordinator Carissa Rounkles said the food was a hit.
“I asked one guy how his meal was, and he said ‘I loved it. I can go to bed happy tonight,’” Rounkles said.
While most children were there for the presents, giving the presents was the gift itself for one child. Grace Harris, 10, donned a red shirt and Santa Claus necklace for her volunteer shift. She said kids were eager to grab their presents.
“They’re all so cute,” Grace said. “They’re like, I want this one, I want this one!”
She and her mother, Katie Harris, are members of Missouri United Methodist Church. They decided to volunteer after reading about the event.
Grace, an avid reader, enjoyed seeing how happy the kids were after selecting a book.
“It’s such a good feeling,” Harris said.