Christmas has come early for some children in East Tennessee and Southeastern Kentucky, and generosity from many strangers helped make it happen.
On Friday, Mission of Hope volunteers delivered items to Burchfield Elementary School in Oneida in Scott County. This holiday celebration was one of many happening in rural Appalachia during the season of giving.
Joy filled the school gym with both sounds and smiles as hundreds of students sang a pop version of "Joy to the World" to kick off the program.
"They're all full of Christmas spirit," said seventh grader, Emily Mays.
A group of 75 volunteers from Concord Christian School, First Baptist Concord, and Island Home Baptist Church in Knoxville delivered the holiday cheer. The school's band played Christmas music as a "thank you" for the celebration.
"It's a real blessing to have everybody that cares to donate and do all this stuff for us," said seventh grader Morgan Young.
This year, the Mission of Hope ministry will serve Young, and more than 17,000 other children in rural Appalachia. It's a large increase from the 150 children the organization served in 1996, the year they started. The toys were collected in blue barrels in the weeks after Thanksgiving. "I got a bracelet set and some necklaces and jewelry and other things," said Young.
Each child gets to pick two items for themselves, and there are hundreds of choices for both boys and girls.
"I got a board game and a basketball. They also gave me a Bible and a hygiene bag," said Mays.
Volunteer Richard Ashworth said there's also a gift in giving,"I get so much more than the children do. It's the true meaning of Christmas."
"We're supposed to bring a blessing, but they bless us," said Betty Holland. She has been a volunteer for Mission of Hope, along with her husband, since 2003. Now, the couple coordinates the Christmas delivery at Burchfield Elementary.
"It just shows that they care about the children," said Young.
Those children also care for the strangers who give them holiday hope for bright futures.
Volunteers will continue making deliveries in rural Appalachia through next week. Friday's delivery in Oneida marked the half-way point in their schedule.