VeRhonda Hembree

By the time the doors have closed at the Boys & Girls Club of the Cumberland Plateau late Sunday evening, nearly 1,000 children in Scott County will be guaranteed to have packages to open on Christmas morning — an assurance that otherwise wouldn’t be there for families struggling to make ends meet.

The annual Toys For Joy program — a collaborative effort of the Unicorn Fund, the Morgan-Scott Project, the Appalachian Life Quality Initiative, Operation Sharing and Salvation Army — is easily Scott County’s largest holiday-themed charitable program, serving around 350 families who need a little extra help providing Christmas gifts for their children.

From 1 p.m. until 6 p.m. Sunday, a steady stream of people will make their way through the BGC gymnasium, where they’ll be assisted by volunteers as they pick out gifts for their children. 

Between them, the participating organizations are reaching more families and more children than any of htem could ever reach on their own.

“We started off years ago with whatever donations we got,” the Unicorn Fund’s VeRhonda Hembree said. “We might’ve been able to help maybe 100 or 150 kids back then. Now we are reaching close to 1,000 kids.”

Now in its fifth year, the Toys For Children program began when, as Hembree puts it, “we all decided that if we came together and pooled our resources, we could help more people; there wouldn’t be some people getting and some not getting because there would be one place to go get it all.”

If anyone understands the need for the Toys For Joy program, it’s Hembree, who has spent a career with the Tennessee Department of Human Services, helping at-risk families and families in need. 

It was out of the DHS that the Unicorn Fund was born nearly 37 years. One of Hembree’s fellow social workers, Patty Melhorn Thomas, was killed in a car accident. She was from Morgan County, and worked at the DHS office in Scott County.

“Me and her collected used stuff and took it to the foster children and the protective servies kids,” Hembree said. “We would take anything we could get, clean things up, wash used clothes, just so the kids could have something.”

When Melhorn died, her family wanted to carry on her dream of helping under-privileged children. 

“The family asked for memorial donations in lieu of flowers so they could do toys for children for Christmas,” Hembree said. “The money came in so overwhelming that the next year they decided, ‘Let’s start a nonprofit and let’s help kids all year long, not just at Christmas.’” 

Fast-forward nearly four decades, and the Unicorn Fund is still going strong. Thomas’s mother, Shelby Melhorn, serves as its director, and the organization is able to raise enough money to provide high school scholarships for a graduating student at every high school in Scott and Morgan counties each year. The Unicorn Fund also assists with medication expenses and utility bills, but education is the main focus.

“Our big thrust is getting the kids educated,” Hembree said. “If we can get them educated, they’re not going to need that assistance later.”

While the Unicorn Fund spent years making Christmas better for kids, it was the coming together of the other agencies — the Morgan-Scott Project, ALQI, Operation Sharing and the Salvation Army — that really allowed the Christmas program to take off.

How it works

Not just anyone can show up at Toys For Joy and go through the line. To be eligible, parents must show their SNAP benefits card and a driver license or another photo ID. Once they’re in line, parents are partnered with a volunteer who helps them shop for their kids. While it varies, depending on availability, parents normally get one large item, two small items and five-to-ten stocking stuffers for each of their children. It’s all new; nothing is used.

“Then we take all the used toys and all the clothing we get, and place it out in one of the back rooms and they can go through that stuff and take anything they want from those items,” Hembree said. “Usually, we have a lot of coats. If a child needs a coat, they can get a coat.”

There are also volunteers on hand who will handle gift-wrapping. “So if a parent wants a gift wrapped, they wrap and tag everything, and the parent can just take the gifts home and put them under the tree,” Hembree said.

In all, about 350 families will be served by Sunday’s program. And while some of them will show up well in advance, Hembree said that isn’t recommended and is actually discouraged.

“You don’t have to come down and camp out all night,” she said. “You don’t have to be there early to get the best items. We keep putting out different things, and sometimes things come in in the middle of the day.”

At 1 p.m., volunteers start handing out numbers. From there, families are taken back in groups, with volunteers accompany each one. Children should not attend the event with their parents.

Help needed

Normally, a team of up to 60 volunteers makes the Toys For Joy program a success. But more is always better, and volunteers are never turned away.

“We can always use volunteers,” Hembree said. “We have volunteers to shop with them, we have teens who help carry stuff out, because we have a lot of grandmothers and grandfathers who are raising their grandkids and they need that assistance. We have people solicit food from restaurants to feed the volunteers, and we have a lot of people bake stuff for the volunteers to snack on during the day. Most of them come at 12:30 and they’re here until seven or eight after cleanup.” 

Community comes together

People from all walks of life volunteer to make Toys For Joy a success.

“There are a lot of folks in the community who support this project,” Hembree said. “We couldn’t do it if it wasn’t for the community. Me, Ella (Smith, from Morgan-Scott Project, and another key volunteer with Toys For Joy), none of us can take credit. It’s Scott County that does it.”

Many of the volunteers are people who are receiving help from the organizations involved. And, no matter how many families show up, none have ever been turned away.

“The Lord has always made a means,” Hembree said. “One year we ran out of things and I didn’t have any money left. I said, ‘I’m going to come up with something.’ I went out to the parking lot and I said, ‘Lord, help me find a way to do this.’ I got in my car and started to back up and I saw someone waving their hands at me. I stopped and got out, and it was Lon Whaley. He had a $500 check from his union (at HBD Industries). That gave us the money to go get gifts to finish out that year.”

It is the spirit of giving back that fuels Toys For Joy. Hembree recalls an experience from years ago, when the Unicorn Fund was first getting started. She was manning an angel tree at Walmart — where donors pick an angel off the tree, purchase a gift, then bring the gift back so that it can be provided to a child in need. She saw a man come in who she remembered as a past DHS client.

“Literally the only food he had in his house when we were there was beans and a sack of potatoes,” she said. “And there were five kids in the home.”

The man picked two angels off the tree. Soon, he was back with two gifts.

“He said, ‘You know, you helped my kids one time when I didn’t have anything. I’m doing better now and the least I can do is make sure two other kids get something for Christmas.’ To me, that got paid back.”

This story is the December 2019 installment of Profiles of a 3-Star Community, presented on the second week of each month by the Industrial Development Board of Scott County as part of the Independent Herald’s Back Page Features series. A print version of this article can be found on Page B8 of the December 12, 2019 edition of the Independent Herald.