Just weeks before Christmas, Army spouse Leacey Reyes felt defeated and powerless. Her husband was 5,000 miles away on a deployment while she and their three young children were back in Fort Hood, Texas. He enlisted in the Army to provide a better quality of life for their kids, but he had only been serving for two years.
She faced the harsh reality that their money wouldn’t stretch far enough to buy the kids Christmas gifts.
“(He) had just left at the time,” Reyes remembered. “We were still going through the ‘I miss Dad’ phase. I felt bad because they weren’t even going to get presents now.”
Her husband applied for help through the Fort Hood Santa’s Workshop. The nonprofit program helps provide toys to military kids for the holidays.
“He told me that we qualified, and told me to go there and pick up some gifts,” Reyes said. At the time, she assumed she’d get handed a few stocking stuffers. She walked out of the workshop with her arms full of much more. “My girls got big toy houses, they got dolls, strollers, like when I’m saying a lot of stuff, they got a lot of stuff,” she emphasized.
The surprise came as a huge relief to Reyes. All she had to do was purchase gift wrap to give her kids the happiest holiday she could with their father away.
“When they got the presents, it kind of filled that void a little bit,” Reyes said. “They still missed Daddy, but they had the moment of happiness when they woke up in the morning and had presents.”
Personal stories like Reyes’ make Fort Hood Santa’s Workshop president Chella Stokoe emotional.
“We’ve had some families that have come through that have really just touched me throughout the years,” said Stokoe through tears. “I will never forget them.”
Stokoe knows what military life is like for kids — her husband has served in the Army for 24 years, and her family has experienced 14 moves.
“They’re always trying to play catchup no matter how good of a student they are,” said Stokoe of military kids. “They’re always trying to play catch up with friends, or their standings, or what placement they are in high school.”
A love of Christmas and a desire to help people led Stokoe to start volunteering for the nonprofit a few years ago. She worked as an elf in the workshop, guiding parents through the aisles of donated items.
“We would pick out toys, and the parents would say, ‘You’re giving me too many,’ and I would say, ‘No, no, this one child gets all of this, and we’re going to do this over again for each of your kids,’” she said. “I saw the sheer happiness that they were able to do something like this.”
Finding joy in a tough year
Santa’s Workshop has grown in popularity since it started as a fundraiser for a single unit at the base in 1998. It now makes assistance available to all of the units at Fort Hood, consisting of about 65,000 soldiers and family members.
According to Stokoe, nearly 900 families submitted applications to the program this year, and most of them have multiple children. That means Santa’s Workshop is planning to provide gifts for more than 2,000 kids for the holiday season.
Many families who have applied for assistance are up against unique financial stressors this year. A large number of military spouses have experienced unemployment, while some families have struggled with increased costs associated with PCSing. Housing shortages have forced some to spend more than their BAH on rent or mortgages, while others struggled to come up with the money for month-long hotel stays while waiting for a place to live to become available.
“A lot of them have trouble asking for help,” said Stokoe. “No one likes to ask for help, no one likes to admit that you know, they’re unable to provide for their families. But they’re not asking for themselves; they’re being an amazing parent because they’re asking for their children.”
Funding for the program comes from private donors and grants from businesses and foundations. Military units also organize ruck marches and donate toys. Not only that, volunteers are eager to help out in Santa’s Workshop and return year after year.
“You just can’t help but be happy in Santa’s Workshop,” said Martha Honeycutt, who volunteered as an elf last year during a socially distanced version of the event. “Family members come to meet these representatives and pick up these items. They’re just joyful, thankful, smiling, and happy; it’s just an infectious environment to be part of.”
It’s now been three years since Leacey Reyes first felt hopeless during the holidays. She’s used the Fort Hood Santa’s Workshop program every year since and recommends it to anyone in a similar situation.
“To us, the military has been a blessing in disguise,” said Reyes. “This program honestly is a life-saver.”
Help for the holidays
Operation Homefront Toy Drive: (https://operationhomefront.org/holiday-toy-drive/)
Operation Homefront partners with Dollar Tree to support military families during the holidays. Dollar Tree stores set out donation bins in stores in November and December to collect toys and gift cards.
Solider’s Angels: (https://soldiersangels.org/holiday-adopt-a-family/)
The Soldiers’ Angels Holiday Adopt-A-Family program helps businesses, organizations and individuals support qualified military and veteran families that could use some help providing a holiday celebration for their families. Eligible families will receive (at minimum) gifts for each child and a grocery gift card to put toward a holiday meal.
The program is open to families of deployed service members, families of Post 9-11 wounded, ill, and injured service members and veterans
Toys for Tots: (https://www.toysfortots.org)
Marine Toys for Tots collects new unwrapped toys to distribute to less fortunate children at Christmas. Toy applications are accepted and managed by local chapters throughout the country.
Trees for Troops: (https://www.christmasspiritfoundation.org)
Individuals buy a fresh Christmas tree and donate it to provide free trees to military families. The trees are picked up and delivered to a base. Trees for troops have delivered more than 262,000 trees to service members in the last 16 years.