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Christmas came early for hundreds of veterans and their families Wednesday.
“It does a lot for my spirit,” said George Thomas, a U.S. Army veteran. “I’m glad they do it for the veterans. They look out for us at Christmas.”
Thomas was one of many who attended Veterans Residential Services of Wilson’s annual Christmas party held this year at First Baptist Church on Nash Street.
The event is an opportunity to give back to veterans in need during the holiday season. Veterans were welcomed with open arms as they picked out a variety of items for themselves and their families, including clothes, jackets, toiletries, Christmas decorations, scarves, hats and toys for their children or grandchildren.
None of it would be made possible without the community’s generosity, said Claudia Baker, Veterans Residential Services of Wilson executive director.
“Everybody came together to do this,” Baker said. “Each year we have more and more people.”
The event is in its fifth year and is usually held at the Wilson County Public Library’s conference room. But Baker said the group outgrew the space and needed more room this year.
Last year’s party helped 272 veterans. This year, organizers added 100 more to the roster, Baker said.
Veterans Residential Services, which began in 2012, works with low-income, homeless and at-risk veterans in Wilson and beyond. The organization also provides financial and emergency assistance as well as employment training and referrals for local veterans. For many, Wednesday’s effort will be the only Christmas they will receive, officials said.
“A lot of veterans never get to go to something like this,” Baker said. “They don’t get presents. This is their present. It’s what we do for them.”
Families spent the morning and afternoon browsing tables full of items just for them. They were also treated to refreshments. Many sat down at nearby tables and talked to each other.
Dozens of volunteers helped veterans load their bags of blessings, including U.S. Army veteran Castonoble Hooks.
“It’s incredible, absolutely incredible,” Hooks said. “I appreciate volunteering because you’re actually sharing in the giving.”
Hooks knows just how much Veterans Residential changes many lives each day in the work its staff does. He is one of those the organization has helped in the past.
“They welcomed me and my family with such open arms,” Hooks said.
Now, it’s his turn to give back and help those who have helped him.
“I see on a personal level what they did for my family,” he said about the organization. “They really built us up. It’s infectious the love these people show.”
‘THEY’VE KEPT OUR COUNTRY FREE’
Veterans and their families also received either a turkey or ham and a box full of food to make a complete Christmas meal.
“God put us on this earth to help people,” Baker said. “The people that have helped us, they’ve kept our country free. If we can’t help them, then why are we doing anything?”
As Baker looked around the room, she said her heart was blessed Wednesday.
“Everybody is smiling,” she said. “I know we’re doing good.”
BY THE NUMBERS
The organization currently serves nearly 600 veterans in various capacities. It also serves about 75 veterans each week through its food pantry.
The organization, which also helps veterans get into stable housing, has furnished seven homes in the last two months alone.
For more information, contact Veterans Residential Services of Wilson at 252-237-4778. The nonprofit is located at 2500 Nash St., Suite E.