DOVER — When his daughters Jamie and Alisha were growing up, Jim Gravatt told them, “ You can always do anything you two girls want to do as long as you pull enough good people together.”
Alisha, who grew up to teach second grade at Bunker Hill Elementary School in Middletown, never forgot his advice.
In 2007, she approached her dad with a request. She wanted to bring Christmas to needy children in the Appoquinimink School District.
Ms. Gravatt organized Operation Christmas Wish to provide presents for five families at her school.
As the program grew, she teamed up with district social workers, radio station 94.7 WDSD, and program headquarters, the Middletown Walmart.
Two years later, the Gravatts were able to bring Operation Christmas Wish to the entire school district.
This year, even more good people pulled together. The program will now serve almost all of Kent County — Caesar Rodney, Campus Community, Capital, Lake Forest, and Smyrna school districts.
“At first, I’ll be honest, it was a little overwhelming, just to imagine that something that started off so small could grow into something so big,” Ms. Gravatt said.
It all started when she was on the playground with a group of kids.
“I asked this little boy if he was excited about Christmas. He turned to me and said, ‘I hate Christmas. I hate everything about it.’” The boy explained that his family couldn’t afford Christmas. “Every year, my friends get new things and I get nothing,” he told her.
“Here’s a kid who at the age of seven already knows he’s different from the rest of his peers,” Ms. Gravatt said, “And that fuels his hatred of Christmas and the spirit of Christmas and everything.”
Downstate, the big players in Operation Christmas Wish are Janet Davis, a member of the Delaware Standardbred Owners Association, and Gail Garner from Communities in Schools.
“This year, I said ‘Because 94.7 WDSD covers the entire state of Delaware, it’s only right to expand it,’” on-air personality Sky Phillips said. Three weeks ago, he recruited Ms. Garner, “an excellent organizational person,” and Mrs. Davis — “She can really raise some funds” — to help launch an “Operation Christmas Wish” in central Delaware. It was the perfect match.
And Mrs. Davis, whose horse farm is just across the road from Hartly Elementary School, has run a similar drive in Kent County for years.
In 2011, she raised $11,600 in donations from the horse-owners, trainers, and drivers who race at Dover Downs. With the money, she purchased gifts for 218 children in the Capital School District.
“Just to think a child wouldn’t have a present to open on Christmas, I can’t put my head on my pillow at night and think that. It’s just horrific,” she said.
Mrs. Davis said nobody in the racing community walks past her without giving something.
“We’re all racing and every man for himself on the race track, but when it comes to my Christmas drive, we’re all one big happy family.”
In years past, Mrs. Davis has also assisted Appoquinimink School District.
Mr. Gravatt recounted: “She showed up with jockeys in a van one year and pulled out coats for every child on the list.”
Operation Christmas Wish begins Saturday at the Macy’s Court in the Dover Mall and at the Middletown Wal-Mart.
Starting at 7 a.m., folks can come by to “adopt a family”; Mrs. Davis said she’ll stay as long as it takes. 94.7 WDSD and 92.9 TOM-FM will also host live broadcasts from the mall.
Ms. Garner said that they went through the schools, working with district social workers and nurses to identify underprivileged kids.
“One thing that I think is really neat about this is it’s not a self-referral. You are brought in by people who see the need in you. And then crosschecked to make sure. We’re truly meeting the needs of the needy.”
She also makes sure that each family has not already been helped by another non-profit, like Toys for Tots. When the family is cleared, they can specify clothing sizes and share their wish list.
Request are written on gift-tags for shoppers to pick up at the mall. They can buy one gift or many; they can also give cash instead.
Families will be given wrapping paper and bows so that parents can personally wrap their children’s gifts. Typically, kids will receive a hat, scarf, gloves, pair of pants, shoes, a shirt, and school supplies.
“Just so they have something to open up,” Ms. Garner said. “Most of the parents, they say, ‘I just want my child to have a holiday.’” Families’ personal information will be kept confidential.
“There is a need here to take care of our own,” she said, “And you just don’t know. It could be the whole who sits next to your child in school.”
Many other volunteers and organizations came together to help with Operation Christmas Wish in both the Appoquinimink School District and Kent County.
Businesses in the Greater Dover Committee and Downtown Dover Partnership paid for whole families’ gifts, and with more time next year, Ms. Garner hopes to recruit even more. She’s also planning a summer “Christmas in July” fundraiser, she said.
“It’s been a crazy three weeks. The nice thing to know is that it’s something we can get off the ground. We can get it started, and it’s a program we really want to be sustainable.”
Moving company Two Men and a Truck donated a truck for storing gifts. The Hogs and Heroes Delaware Chapter 2, a motorcycle club, is offering manpower. Life House Ministries in Townsend is also involved.
Staff writer Eleanor La Prade can be reached at 741-8242 or firstname.lastname@example.org.