15th annual Fill the Boot campaign starts Nov. 23

By Tammy Keith Published November 22, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Conway firefighters and supporters getting ready for Local 4016’s 15th annual Christmas Fill the Boot campaign are, from the left, Hannah Johnson, Chad Johnson, Corbin Capps, campaign chairman Billie Carter, Rebecca Lambert, Evan Buerer, Tim Capps and Ethan Johnson. They will begin holding out boots Friday at Conway and Vilonia locations to get donations to buy toys and food for needy families.

— Firefighters have some big boots to fill again this year — their own.

The 15th annual Christmas Fill the Boot campaign starts Friday to provide toys, clothes and food for needy Faulkner County children and their families.

Conway firefighters in Union 4106 will be stationed at several locations in Conway and Vilonia, holding out boots to collect donations from passing vehicles.

Firefighter Billie Carter, chairman of the event, said more than 240 families and 1,000 children were helped last year.

“Each child gets a shirt, pants, shoes and a toy, and the whole family gets a food box with a big ham, canned vegetables, cereal, potatoes …. A local dentist gives us supplies,” he said.

Names of needy families are received from school counselors before the campaign starts.

“All this is on faith — the Lord takes care of us every year,” Carter said.

The first year, 1998, firefighters raised $1,700 and helped 32 families.

“Oh, my goodness; we thought we were in high cotton,” he said.

When the program was smaller, Carter said, firefighters delivered presents to all the homes.

“We got to see firsthand the reaction from the kids and how thankful everyone was,” he said.

Carter has a favorite story from one of those years, one that “still gives me chill bumps,” he said.

“We showed up one night, a couple of us, on Christmas Eve to a house south of town and knocked on the door. A couple of grandparents had custody of these two kids, who were running around in their Underoos, and there was a little bitty Charlie Brown-looking Christmas tree in the corner and nothing under it, and this was Christmas Eve, about dusk.”

He said the grandparents were surprised to see the firefighters, and the children were thrilled with their gifts.

“The grandpa follows us out and breaks down and cries, and not just teared up — he cries, and he said he was praying and praying and praying to come into a little bit of money to give the kids some socks and underwear, and we were the answer to their prayers,” Carter said.

Since the program has grown, the firefighters deliver gifts to individual schools for the families to pick up.

Carter said firefighters also do a “low-key ministry.” Each child is given a pocket Bible with his name handwritten in it.

In addition to buying presents, firefighters accept unwrapped new or like-new toys, which can be dropped off at 501 Life Magazine, 701 Chestnut St., in downtown Conway.

Monetary donations can be mailed to Conway Firefighters Fill the Boot, P.O. Box 2367, Conway, AR 72033.

Carter also emphasized that procedures are in place to account for all the money, which is taken to the bank after each collection.

“We have a pretty strict system as it comes to liability and guarding the money,” he said.

Since it started in 1998, Carter said Fill the Boot has raised more than $350,000 and helped 10,000 children and their families.

“That’s a big number,” he said.

“The firefighters are just the middleman,” he said.

They shop for the gifts, and a huge wrapping party

is held in a donated space. Firefighters, their family members and community volunteers participate in what has become a well-oiled process.

“It’s a huge family atmosphere,” Carter said.

Melissa Claycomb, counselor at Marguerite Vann Elementary School in Conway, sings the praises of the program.

“Most importantly, it means [students] will have something Christmas morning when they get up,” she said. “At this time of year, it’s just hard for parents,

especially those with several children, to provide something for the children. The firemen, they’ve made it very easy for us. Their job is just unbelievable — they collect the money; they do the shopping; they do the wrapping and bring it back to the school for the parents to pick up. They provide food for the meal, too,” which makes the holiday special, she said.

In addition to the Fill the Boot collection dates, a competition is held among businesses. Carter said boots have been placed in about 74 businesses in Faulkner County, in Greenbrier, Vilonia and Conway.

The business that collects the most money gets a traveling trophy — an actual bronzed firefighter boot on a wooden base — to display for a year.

Centennial Bank on Hogan Lane in Conway has won the trophy the past couple of years, he said.

Carter said all praise should go to people who donate.

“The bottom line — it’s the community taking care of its own. It’s really the citizens who are the true heroes and really Santa Claus,” Carter said.

Collection dates will be 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday; 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday; and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 1 and Dec. 8 at the following locations: Conway Commons, the Conway Towne Centre, the Vilonia four-way and Arkansas 107, Kroger on Salem Road, Hastings and First Community Bank on Old Morrilton Highway in Conway.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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