FORT WALTON BEACH — As the holiday season draws near, the Salvation Army is stepping up to make Thanksgiving and Christmas a success for local families.
Each year the Salvation Army organizes its Angel Tree event to provide struggling parents with an opportunity to shop for Christmas presents for their children.
On Oct. 4, the Salvation Army and other organizations will begin collecting toys from people across the Panhandle. After the collection, staff and volunteers will set up toy shops where parents can come and choose free gifts.
“It’s our happiest time of year,” Salvation Army Lt. Monica Rojas said. “We play Christmas music, set out cookies and create a beautiful Christmas atmosphere.”
Rojas said 1,200 children in Okaloosa and Walton counties received gifts last year.
In addition to the Angel Tree, the Salvation Army also feeds families during Thanksgiving. This year it will offer families in need with a Christmas meal as well.
“Next month we will start accepting applications from families who want to participate in the Angel Tree or our Thanksgiving and Christmas meals,” Rojas said. “We usually serve almost 70 for the Thanksgiving meal.”
Rojas said the Salvation Army also employs people during the holiday season. The nonprofit already has begun the hiring process for bell ringers.
“Many people in the community are waiting for this job,” Rojas said. “This time of year after the tourists leave, everything goes down. We love to give people in the community an opportunity to work.”
The Salvation Army in Fort Walton Beach opened in 1968 with a rented store, doubling as a thrift store and a chapel on Sundays. It also was able to rent thrift stores in Crestview and Niceville that served as welfare offices.
Now, almost 50 years later, the Salvation Army continues to serve the community through social services, feeding programs, after-school programs, music classes, life-skills coaching, backpack distributions, elderly visits and more.
Rojas said although the Salvation Army staff and volunteers are excited for the 2017 holiday season, it is focused on so much more.
Following Hurricane Harvey, the Salvation Army as a whole delivered 206,637 meals, distributed 3,843 comfort kits and 320 cleanup kits, gave 898,063 hours of employee and volunteer service and more.
Rojas said $3,330 was raised locally for victims of Harvey.
During the week, the Salvation Army staff and volunteers also host children’s music classes and after-school tutoring.
Parents can sign their children up for the music program at little to no cost, Rojas said. Piano and guitar lessons are taught on Thursday nights.
“We feel it’s very important because it keeps kids away from the streets,” Rojas said. “I’ve read many times that when kids learn music, it opens their minds and they become smarter kids. Having a hobby is something I believe will help them in the future.”
Monday through Thursday, the Salvation Army picks up students from Mary Esther Elementary School for its tutoring program from 3:30 to 5 p.m. After the program, volunteers and staff take the children home, Rojas said.
On Wednesdays there is a character building class in which children read the Bible, pray and sing.
“We are always looking for volunteers for our tutoring program or anyone willing to teach a musical instrument. That would be wonderful,” Rojas said.
Want to volunteer, donate or sign up for services? Visit salvationarmyflorida.org/fortwalton or call 850-243-4531.