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HEMSI delivers toys to YMCA children in downtown Huntsville

HUNTSVILLE — Christmas came a little bit early for the children at the YMCA Downtown Early Childhood Education Center.

Though these first gifts of Christmas may not have come from Santa Claus, that didn’t lessen the joy the kids felt when they were each personally handed a present from a few local heroes the morning of Dec. 18.

HEMSI has been partnering with the Heart of the Valley YMCA and United Way for more than a decade to give children this special experience.

“We want to do everything we can to make sure that (the kids) have a great Christmas,” said Don Webster, community relations officer for HEMSI. “It touches our hearts to give to the children.”

The event is a favorite for many involved, and several employees from each organization said they look forward to seeing the kids’ faces light up with excitement each year.

“Every year this is fresh for me because it’s a picture of collaboration in the community, and that’s so much about what United Way’s about—can we bring together folks that have different pieces, and can we do something that none of us could do alone?” said Cathy Miller, community impact director for United Way of Madison County. “I think this is a great example of that.”

These children who attend the downtown center typically come from extremely low-income families, according to Erin Ledet, the center’s director. Because of this, some of them may not receive as many gifts as other kids at Christmastime.

The downtown center, one of three YMCA childhood education centers in Huntsville, provides a safe, nurturing and enriching environment for babies and pre-k children in the area. Ledet said  each classroom features a circle time area with letters, numbers, shapes and colors. Health is also a big focus of the center with the inclusion of a small cafeteria room for children to eat nutritious meals. The center also has a food backpack program. “We send home probably 30 backpacks every Friday,” Ledet said. Since many of these families are low-income and also may not have a washer or dryer in their homes, there is a washer and dryer at the center they can use.

Ledet also said each location has a First Class Pre-K program which is funded by the state and works to prepare 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds to enter kindergarten.

The children were brought outside the center one class at a time and waited with eager anticipation for the ambulance to pull around the corner. Ledet said the children were told ahead of the time that the ambulance would be paying a visit so they knew what to expect.

“It’s cool to watch their faces when the ambulance comes in,” said Tony, a HEMSI employee who has been participating in the event for about six years. “They turn on the lights, so it’s cool to watch their faces then, but it’s the most fun when you give them a present.”

The HEMSI employees handed out the gifts one at a time, and each gift was addressed to a specific child at the center. Each year, HEMSI employees donate toys for this initiative, and Webster said more than 100 toys were donated this year. United Way helped to sort and wrap all of these toys, and Miller said there are extras they let the center use.

“The generosity of HEMSI allows us to wrap a couple extras and some for the center to use—some of the bigger gifts because we want to be sure that every child is happy, and it’s kind of equitable,” she added.

Each child waited patiently for all to receive a gift before returning to their classrooms to open their presents and play with their new toys. Webster and other HEMSI employees said the delivery is also a great opportunity to show the children that the ambulance folks are good people they can trust to help them if they are ever in need.

“We want them to know that we’re good people, and we do respond to a lot of bad things and negative things, and so we want them to know that we are good people and bring good things to them, too,” Webster said.

“I think that it’s important for HEMSI to see the kids in the community when there’s not sickness, death or dying, so that way if and when the kids do need to call us at 911, we’re a familiar and friendly face, and we’re not strangers,” added Jacquelyn Armstrong, a HEMSI employee who helped hand out the gifts. “It’ll make it a little less scary.”

Above all else, HEMSI and United Way said giving back to the community is the most rewarding aspect of participating in events like the Christmas toy delivery.

“We bring the volunteers and the expertise around knowing what toys are appropriate, HEMSI brings the gifts, and the Y has the children—it’s just a wonderful mix of that picture of folks working together to benefit children, and that’s a great thing.

Though this event may be one of the most prominent collaborations between United Way of Madison County and the center, Miller said they continue to partner with them year round. In addition, the YMCA is just one of more than 30 nonprofit organizations United Way works with on a regular basis.

“We’re in a real poverty-stricken part of Madison County, and so the fact that this childcare center is here year round—that’s why United Way invests pretty heavily in this childcare center and the other two childcare centers because we know how important education and an early start is, so this is one fun day to celebrate giving and Christmas, but we love this center year round, and we think it’s such an important part,” Miller said.

More information about United Way and the organizations with which they partner can be found at uwmadisoncounty.org. To learn more about the downtown center, visit ymcahuntsville.org.

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