"There's a miracle going on at First United Methodist."
That was the message Heather McClain, wife of Operation Christmas founder Judge Beau McClain, had from her husband for the volunteers at Douglasville FUMC Saturday near the end of the third annual Operation Christmas Douglas County aimed at providing gifts for needy children from infants to high school seniors.
Beau McClain set out to serve about 8,000 children in the county this year and he said after most of the gifts had been handed out at close to 30 sites in the county that he was optimistic 100 percent of the kids signed up for "Golden TIckets" would get their gifts.
McClain estimated about 70 percent of the children and their parents picked up the gifts in person Saturday. One Community Church in Douglasville volunteered to hand-deliver gifts by Christmas that weren't picked up at four of the distribution sites -- Douglas County Sheriff's Office, Douglasville Police Department, Douglas County Fire Department and Douglas County High School.
McClain said many of the other sites, including several churches, planned to call those who didn't come pick up their gifts and offer to help get the gifts to them before Christmas. And he said he'll personally deliver some gifts because he gets so much joy from it.
But he noted that for various reasons, from transportation issues to parents who had to work Saturday, that not every parent could get to their designated distribution site during the 9-11 a.m. window for Operation Christmas, which had to be re-scheduled from from its original date last Saturday due to the snowstorm.
"Nothing is going to stop Douglas County from coming together," McClain said. "10 inches of snow isn't going to stop it. Nothing is going to stop it. I went out to about eight or nine locations this year and all I saw was people smiling, people praying, people saying 'thank you,' children excited about gifts, food being served, songs being served."
He added: "I saw a parent arrive at the sheriff's department in a taxi, so somebody took a taxi to get Christmas presents for their children. So there are a lot of barriers in front of people who are poor to a lot of services and people who aren't poor just don't understand it because because they haven't walked in their shoes."
As Operation Christmas continues to grow each year, more of the distribution sites are coming up with different ways to make the experience magical for those families being served, which include children on free and reduced lunches at local schools, homeless, children in the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, those who live in group shelters and others.
Megan Hedges is the Mission Team Leader at FUMC, which for the first two years distributed gifts largely in a drive-through system where gift recipients drove up to a door, presented their Golden Ticket and received a black plastic bag with at least one gift for each child.
Hedges said she knew last year she wanted to make the experience for the roughly 400 families FUMC serves more special.
This year, entire families were invited into the church where they were served breakfast. There was a large craft area staffed by volunteers, many from local high schools, where children from Operation Christmas were entertained while their parents went to a shopping room with a volunteer personal shopper to pick out two gifts that were age and gender appropriate for each of their children. Operation Christmas provided one gift and FUMC members donated money and gifts so that each child received two gifts.
After the parents were done shopping, they had the option to go a wrapping station where their gifts were wrapped by volunteers. And then on their way back to picking up their children and the crafts they made, the parents were invited to go into a prayer room where a church member would pray with the parents about crises they might be facing, needs or anything else important to the person.
"We just want them to walk in, feel loved, feel welcome and just have a special experience," Hedges said.
McClain said that he met with Hedges Saturday morning and they cried together because he said he could "feel the spirit and it was very powerful."
Heather Jallad, associate pastor at FUMC, said the church does service work year-round and that Operation Christmas was one big way to help the community.
"It really is a network of people, the body of Christ working together," she said. "So we're working together to better our community and just living out what we've been called to do."
David Carter, a member at One Community Church, was at the Douglas County jail shortly after Operation Christmas ended there. Church at Chapel Hill distributed gifts at the jail and Sgt. Traci Sullivan provided trustees and deputies to help with things like coffee and loading gifts.
Carter and his crew picked up the gifts that weren't distributed and said all of the gifts would be taken to the children's homes before Christmas by church volunteers.
One Community Church had been a distribution site in the past, but this year found a new way to help make Operation Christmas a success.
"We can't promise the community that were Amazon," McClain said. "We can't deliver everything. But the resource presented itself and we decided to take advantage because we realize there are a lot of people with work issues and transportation issues."
McClain said with a third Operation Christmas in the books, he and the others involved will look at how to make things even better next year.
This year, for instance, he said that instead of having the school system tasked with distributing tickets to 6,000 or 7,000 individual students, all Golden Tickets for, say a family of four kids, were sent home with one child.
But, he said, the obstacle to that is that if the one student with four tickets for his or her family loses the envelope with the tickets, the entire family's tickets are gone.
He said Operation Christmas worked to make sure when that happened that new tickets were issued and all families were taken care of.
McClain said they've learned how to fix those issues and are even working on Operation Christmas software to help manage how kids receive gifts in the future.
Looking back at his visit with Hedges and the others at FUMC Saturday morning, he said he could feel the miracle.
"You can see something and then you can feel something," McClain said. "When you feel something, you know God's talking to you and he's trying to tell you something. And it was just amazing what was going on at that church today. But it's amazing everywhere."