Volunteer Frank Cooke helps a local child shop for items during the annual Erwin Kiwanis Club Shopping Tour on Saturday, Dec. 2, at the Unicoi Walmart. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

The Erwin Kiwanis Club made the Christmas wishes of 193 children come true during their annual Christmas Shopping Tour at the Unicoi Walmart on Saturday, Dec. 2.

Along with the Kiwanis Club, teachers and school counselors, over 75 volunteers, individual donors and the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department all partnered together to make this event a success. Several restaurants in the area donated a total of 50 pizzas, and Food Lion donated chocolate milk for the lunch that was held at Unicoi County High School following the shopping event.

“It’s a great big community effort, and it shows that people really just want to give back,” said Bill Gaines, public relations representative for the Erwin Kiwanis Club.

Each child was given a limit of $100, tax free, to spend at Walmart, and each volunteer guiding the children was given a sheet with the child’s sizes, needs and interests in order to assist them in their shopping choices.

“If a kid needs extra, then we’re happy to step in, but a lot of times we don’t have to because the volunteers that are taking them will often make up for the difference,” Gaines said. “So this event is really bigger than the $21,000 the Kiwanis club spends.”

There were 40 children present from Rock Creek Elementary School, 85 from Love Chapel Elementary School, 23 from Temple Hill Elementary School and 45 from Unicoi Elementary. School counselors and teachers from each of the schools assisted the Kiwanis Club in determining which students would benefit the most from the shopping trip.

“We used to talk to teachers and parents and use our best judgement for which kids needed to go, but now we send a letter home with paperwork and the parents can sign up back in October, so it’s really a trust system and we trust that they need it,” said Summer Hughes, school counselor at Love Chapel Elementary School. “We never turn anyone away, and without a doubt, Unicoi County really takes care of it’s kids.”

This is Hughes’ 10th year participating in the shopping tour, and she said that the sense of community in Unicoi County is truly exceptional and unrivaled compared to what she has seen in other areas.

She has seen the event grow tremendously since her first year when she was working with Temple Hill and the school only took seven children.

“I believe this is the largest group I’ve ever taken, but it was also the best behaved group. We have a system here at Love Chapel where the kids are rewarded for good social skills,” she explained. “They get points for making eye contact, shaking hands, saying ‘yes, sir’ ‘no, sir,’ and we’ve had that in place for a year now. I really saw the effects of that today, and without even being prompted I saw the kids doing those things.”

Hughes was not only one impressed by the respectfulness and behavior of the children, but also by the kindness of each of the volunteers, namely the Unicoi County High School ROTC members.

“It’s really impressive that the ROTC students from the high school came. They have such exceptional social skills and manners, Hughes said. “I don’t know what they do in that ROTC program, but they’re doing a great job. The kids are so comfortable with them.”

One might expect children to fill shopping carts up with only toys if they were given $100 to spend at mostly their discretion, but many of the volunteers and event organizers were taken aback by how responsible the children were in using the funds.

“You’d be surprised, a lot of these kids don’t have much and so they really value clothes,” Gaines said. “When they get to that age where they notice what other kids have, they really want nice clothes to wear.”

For many of those involved in this event, it’s the joy and the appreciation that the children express that inspire them to come out each year and participate.

“I enjoy sitting here watching the smiles on their faces, and you’ll see little girls holding hands or several of them hugging and you can tell they’re so excited to go shopping,” said Gaines. “I had one little boy stop me and say ‘I’m rich, I have $100 to go shopping with’.”

It’s not only the volunteers that are generous with their time, but the children themselves are often thinking of others such as their parents or siblings when deliberating on what items to pick out. 

“We don’t tell them what they can and can’t buy, we encourage them to get one outfit, but the selflessness of these kids at such a young age is amazing,” Hughes said. “Most often each kid will try to buy something for another family member, and it’s such a sweet thing to see. They’re so frugal and thoughtful when left to their own devices. It really gives you hope for humanity.”