One of a great number of annual events altered, if not called off, this year due to the pandemic, Operation Christmas Hope became a drive-through distribution on Saturday. Although it looked very different this year, Hope Center leadership and volunteers said they were happy to still distribute food, clothing and Christmas presents to the families of low-income local children age 3 and under.

“Usually every year Oak Grove Church in Tusculum does a dramatization of the Christmas story,” Hope Center administrator Lisa Shipley explained.

The crisis pregnancy center typically hosts Operation Christmas Hope at Oak Grove Freewill Baptist Church in conjunction with the play put on by the church.

“It’s really something that their church members really enjoy doing, but because of COVID, we had to change things up this year,” Shipley said. “They’re missing out on the Christmas drama and sitting on Santa’s lap, but we still have Santa.”

Volunteers David Kenney and Soozie Shore dressed as Santa and Mrs. Claus. Shipley said it was Kenney’s 10th year filling the role of Santa for the event, which took place Saturday in the parking lot of the Hope Center at 314 Tusculum Blvd.

Shipley said to manage the number of cars driving through the line, which looped around the parking lot, families were given a time frame to come through. When they did, volunteers placed groceries and bottled water, as well as bags containing a couple of outfits, a coat, age appropriate toys, and if needed, shoes and diapers for the children in the vehicle.

“We ask them to give us ideas of things their children would like,” Shipley explained, and sponsors purchased and donated items.

“Typically at Oak Grove we would also have volunteers preparing a hot meal for the families,” Shipley said.

Like the play, the meal was canceled due to the pandemic, but through Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee, Hope Center volunteers also distributed 9,000 pounds of nonperishable food.

“The food would normally cost us over $1,700,” Shipley said. “That’s in food bank prices. Through some federal grants, Second Harvest was able to provide it all to us at no cost.”

Shipley said the one thing the crisis pregnancy center paid for was bottled water, which was an expense of $28. Food City donated bags for the groceries, Shipley said.

While volunteers packed each family’s vehicle with donated goods, the children had an opportunity to visit with Kenney as Santa, who hand-delivered gifts to the children.

Around 140 local children were served in Greene County, and the Door of Hope extension to the Hope Center in Unicoi County served 45.

Visitors were mostly Hope Center clients, plus some additional families referred to the Hope Center by others, but the appearance of Kenney dressed as Santa also attracted some others.

“Some parents were driving by and had kids who wanted so see Santa, so they drove through,” said Hope Center Director Sharon Hodgens. “We love that.”

“The first person to come through was a girl probably in her 20’s, and she wanted a picture with Santa,” Shipley added.

Hodgens and Shipley both said they were happy for the opportunity to spread awareness of the Hope Center and the services it offers to families dealing with a crisis pregnancy.

“We love doing this,” Hodgens said. “This is allowing us to love on our families and work with the community to share hope and Christ’s love in a troubled time.”

“2020 has caused so many families to struggle financially, physically and emotionally,” Shipley said. “The opportunity to bring joy and the hope of a better to morrow is a privilege to all involved through the Hope Center.”

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