By Kari Hawkins, Redstone Rocket StaffNovember 25, 2008
Packed safely away in boxes at the home of John and Brenda Perry are 500 soft and furry little bears that are waiting to be adopted by the children of North Alabama's military.
On Saturday, Dec. 6, children of active, Guard and Reserve families as well as deployed DoD civilians and contractors will be given the gift of a bear at the fifth annual Operation Christmas Bear at the Cahaba Shrine Temple on Pulaski Pike in Huntsville.
The holiday party, set for 1 to 4 p.m., will feature several activities, including face painting, magic shows, holiday crafts, a moon bounce and giant slides, a model train display, story time with Mrs. Claus, and lots of fun clowns and life-size characters, including Frosty the Snowman, Minnie Mouse and a Holiday Bear.
The centerpiece of the event is the visit each child has with Santa Claus and the gift of the cute and cuddly stuffed bear, whose neck is adorned with a military scarf.
"To see the looks on the kids' faces when they come to Operation Christmas Bear is so rewarding for all of the volunteers," event chairman John Perry said. "It's really a happy day. It's a big party and everything is free."
Spearheaded by the North Alabama Veterans and Fraternal Organizations Coalition, Operation Christmas Bear is supported by numerous volunteers and local businesses eager to show their appreciation and support to the area's military and their families.
"It's a way for us to give something back to the families of Soldiers who have given us more than we could ever give in return," said Perry's wife, Brenda, who is one of the event's chief volunteers.
Families are asked to register for Operation Christmas Bear through Army Community Service. They should call 876-5397 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many local military families attend Operation Christmas Bear every year. There are also a lot of first-timers who learn about the program through flyers sent out to military units throughout North Alabama.
One of those flyers was mailed to the Reserve's 326th Chemical Company headquarters on Patton Road. Operation Christmas Bear is on the unit's drill weekend, so the company's officers decided to make the holiday party a family activity for its 100 Soldiers and their families. The unit has signed up 40 children for Operation Christmas Bear.
"Normally, we have a pretty big family day," said Sgt. Gregory DeShawn Miller, the 326th's family readiness liaison.
"Instead we've decided to make Operation Christmas Bear part of our drill weekend. Everyone's excited. It's something a little different than what we normally do. As long as our kids are having fun and their families are having fun it will be a great day for us."
Miller said those Soldiers who are single and who don't have children will also participate in the party by helping with Soldier families or with party activities, or by just enjoying the festivities themselves.
There will be something for children of all ages at Operation Christmas Bear. The fun will start with the arrival of Santa Claus by fire truck, with escorts provided by the Patriot Guard Riders. Once inside, kids will be entertained by amazing magician Russell Davis, as well as emcee Mojo from WZYP, costumed characters, Cahaba Shrine and Huntsville Hospital clowns and Mrs. Claus, who will have her own cozy area where she will read children's stories. There will also be a model train set on display and holiday music will be performed by the Charlie Lyle Band.
Children will be able to get their faces painted, make Christmas crafts, play on a moon bounce and giant slides set up outside the temple, and get their picture taken with Santa. There will also be lots of party food to enjoy.
Besides the holiday bears, each child will receive a small wooden toy, such as dump trunks, tractors, lady bugs and dragons, made by volunteers Paul Soracco and Seiford Schultz. There will also be a free giveaway of four large-sized airplanes made by the craftsmen.
Operation Christmas Bear was started five years ago by the late Bill Meiers in support of the children of deployed Soldiers. Since then, it has grown to include all military families and deployed DoD civilian families. Many volunteers have been with the event since its beginning.
"Operation Christmas Bear is special because of all the volunteers who find ways to create just the right atmosphere for the children," Perry said. "The event gets bigger and bigger every year thanks to our sponsors. There are so many great people involved in this that I could go on and on."
Regions Bank is donating the supplies for arts and crafts. The Huntsville/Madison County YMCA purchased the train set for the party. Enchanted Masquerade donates character costumes, Marine Moms sponsors Mrs. Claus' area and the 19th Alabama provides safety for the event. Kroger is donating the holiday foods, the Redstone-Huntsville Chapter of the Association of the U.S. Army has made a $1,000 donation to the event, and the DuMidi Club, Warrant Officers Association and other organizations provide volunteers. There are many other donors as well, including the Cahaba Shrine, American Legion Post 229, Army Community Service, Berney Solutions and Huntsville Hospital.
"This is a great community get together that honors the families of our military and deployed servicemembers," Perry said.