FORT BENNING, GA - Hundreds of Fort Benning children will have presents under the tree this holiday season thanks to the efforts of an Illinois man.

Dan Packard, vice president of sales for Revision Eyewear, said he got sidetracked during his trip from Illinois to the Infantry Warfighting Conference this week when he noticed a story in The Bayonet about a shortfall in donations facing Santa's Castle, a nonprofit organization that provides toys to the post's needy children during the holidays.

The story spurred Packard to call friends, colleagues and businessman to raise $6,000 for the charity. Packard started the donation pot Friday with his own $1,000 donation.

"I thought to myself, 'what a great and noble cause, and it's ridiculous that they don't have enough money,'" said Packard, a former combat controller in the Air Force. "I've always been blessed and never had a year without presents but I've had years away from my family while I was deployed with the military. I've woken up in foreign lands with my family celebrating Christmas without me so I can appreciate the sacrifices our service members have made. Santa's Castle does a wonderful thing for these families, so it was an easy decision to participate."

By Tuesday, Packard had raised $16,001 worth of pledges for Santa's Castle.
"I was absolutely floored," said Joanna Thomas, the president of Santa's Castle, when she received the call from Packard.

Thomas and other Santa's Castle volunteers helped Packard unload a truck full of brand new toys Tuesday purchased at the Manchester Expressway Wal-Mart with one-third of the money raised and a 10 percent discount from the store. In the next several weeks, Packard said he would work to collect the remaining donations.

"I am a mom myself and if I wasn't able to give my child any toys for Christmas, I would feel awful," Thomas said. "It's a wonderful feeling to provide this service to needy children and help put their parents' minds at ease."

Though the large donation has generated an unexpected wealth of toys, Santa's Castle still needs monetary and toy donations to meet its goal of 4,500 toys this holiday season, she said. The organization currently has nearly 2,000 toys.

Santa's Castle is preparing for approximately 1,500 needy children this year in the wake of the recession and the additional influx of families as a result of BRAC, said Dottie Hider, the applications coordinator for Santa's Castle. That number is up from last year's average of 1,000 children.

Santa's Castle's goal is to provide each child with three toys, a stuffed animal and a bag full of stocking stuffers. The organization also provides each family with a board game, said Beth Cronk, the organization's volunteer coordinator.

This year, thanks to a large donation of wrapping paper from Operation Homefront, Santa's Castle will also provide free wrapping paper for the toys as well.
One thing many people don't know about Santa's Castle, said Thomas, is that all the donated toys are brand new and never been used.

Price tags are removed and bar codes are marked out so each present is ready to wrap. One of the most popular items the organization tries to purchase is bicycles. Other items in the showroom this year include MP3 players, sports equipment, fashion purses and scooters. Toys are available for both boys and girls from infants to 17 years old.
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