McALESTER ARMY AMMUNITION PLANT, Okla. -- A retired 72-year-old letter carrier from McAlester, Oklahoma, recalls the tough times his family endured in the early 1950s when his father, who was previously employed at the ammunition plant here, had contracted tuberculosis and could no longer work.

More importantly, Roy Justice fondly recalls receiving a Johnny Lujack-signed football from employees, here, during one of their first annual Christmas parties for underprivileged children from the area.

The tradition that began on Dec. 22, 1951 continues today for children who otherwise would not have much of a Christmas. Back then, the children enjoyed a turkey meal and Santa Claus gave each of them a 10-pound bag of apples, oranges, mixed nuts, candy, balloons, and Cracker Jacks, as well as gifts and clothing.

"I still appreciate it," Justice said. "My baby sister, Judy, and I got to go to it. It was an awesome time for little, poor kids, it really was."

This year, employees from the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant; Defense Ammunition Center; and Morale, Welfare and Recreation, welcomed 25 families with 82 children.

They again received a meal, but also a large bag filled with several wrapped gifts specifically chosen for each child. Each family also took home a large tote filled with an estimated $200 worth of groceries, including a ham, said Kathy Dromgold, president of the Children's Christmas Party Committee.

Parents and grandparents who attended with the children were also able to select from a variety of gently-used coats and shoes collected by Morale, Welfare and Recreation.

Like Justice's family, those who were invited to attend with their children this year face significant challenges. One 33-year-old single father who attended with his five boys was facing the real possibility of losing their home and of not having anything for his children Christmas day.

"Christmas is going to be wonderful this year," he said following the party. "It will be filled with a day full of things we weren't expecting. We literally weren't expecting to have anything.

"To know that we now have the means [to celebrate], it's a relief for me, and I'm sure for the kids to know they will have something under that tree that their daddy couldn't provide himself. To them, it's no different, and they will be happy with everything put there."

The event is a year-long undertaking for Dromgold and the committee of 20 employees. It begins with local agencies identifying underprivileged families in Pittsburg County and formally inviting each of them to attend, said Dromgold.

She said the committee holds two or three raffles each year, which generate about $13,000 toward the party's expenses.

"That is the only way we can do it," Dromgold said. "If it wasn't for our employees out here supporting it, we couldn't do the things we did for the kids."

The committee also receives generous support from major retailers in McAlester, who offer discounts toward the purchased items or donate food.

Since the first party 65 years ago, Dromgold estimates that more than 3,000 youngsters have attended the event.

"We work hard throughout the year and when you see the smiles on their little faces and the tears, it just makes you feel good," Dromgold said.

It also causes employees to reflect on their own lives.

"You respect and appreciate what you have, especially when you see those who have so much less," Dromgold said.

Perhaps, more importantly, the annual party provides children with memories that last a lifetime.

"It's a fond memory for me. It really is, because people out there really care about other people," Justice said. "And I appreciate what the [employees] are doing today to carry on the tradition."

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MCAAP is one of 14 installations of the Joint Munitions Command and one of 23 organic industrial base facilities under the U.S. Army Materiel Command.