FORT RUCKER, Ala. (December 5, 2013) -- For more than 18 years, the Angel Tree Program has been providing gifts to children of the Fort Rucker community, and though organizers wish that there were no children in need this season, 399 have been placed on the list this year to receive a Christmas gift.

Officials at the Main Post Chapel ask that members of the Fort Rucker community brave the seasonal crowds to purchase a gift, or even a few, for underprivileged children.

With the tree up and decorated with the tags, Therese Erthal, Catholic parish coordinator, hopes that people will soon be coming in to bring a smile to a young person's face this holiday season.

"This year I have 399 children to collect gifts for. So, we ask that people take as many tags as their heart desires," said Erthal.

The ages range from newborns to 18 years, and gifts are asked to be returned to the chapel no later than Dec. 11. The program is anonymous. The only information the giver receives is the gender and age of the child.

"Every year I get a list from (Army Community Service) of the Soldiers, and some civilian workers, that are in need of assistance. I then make gift tags for each child and hang them on our Angel Tree, and ask people in the community to take a tag, purchase an age-appropriate gift and return the gift to the tree," said the coordinator.

Gifts must be new, unwrapped and unopened. Gift cards are an acceptable gift and make for a good choice for the older teens who are sometimes harder to shop for, but Erthal asks that participants not drop off foodstuffs.

"Please do not bring candy, cookies or treats like that. We cannot give that out and it will be a few weeks before the children get their gifts," she said. "Plus, the child might be diabetic or be on a medical diet. It is best to stick with books, gift cards and toys.

Tags can be taken off or left on the purchases, along with receipts, according to Erthal, who said that it might be easier for the parents who need to resize clothes purchased for their child.

Donations of tape, bows, gift wrap and gift bags are "absolutely wonderful," she added.

If anyone takes a tag and realizes they cannot purchase a gift, the program coordinator said that they can either call the church at 255-9894 and give the tag information so a replacement tag can be made, or they can drop by the chapel and hang their tag back on the tree.

"It may seem embarrassing, but none of us know what unexpected expenses might pop up, so it's totally understandable when that happens," she said.

Despite the large community involvement and generosity, Erthal said that last year 45 tags were still left on the tree.

"We ask that the community come forth to support Soldiers and their Families. Having that many children's tags left on the tree is such a sad thing," she said.

Nancy Jankoski, church community member, said that she loves the program because she knows that it is directly helping people on post who really need it.

"We have people come through the chapel all the time who have various needs, so I know this helps meet some of the needs of those people who live and work here," she said as she took a few tags from the tree.

"This program really benefits our Families, and Soldiers give so much," added Erthal. "This is a chance for the Army Family to take care of its own, because sometimes we all need a little help and that's OK. Money can only be stretched so far at the end of the month."

Gifts can be dropped off at any time, and if anyone wants to give a gift but does not have the time to claim a tag, they can drop off their gift at the tree and a child that remains will receive the gift, she said.