EAST LIVERPOOL - While most local children nestled snug in their beds Christmas morning, not quite awake enough to discover the bounty Santa brought overnight, hundreds of other children withstood the morning's bitter cold temperatures outside a downtown building, hoping Santa might have left them a little something inside.
And they weren't disappointed. Inside Elks Lodge 258 on Broadway, about 250 children found more than they could imagine during the annual Christmas party sponsored by the organization.
Members and their families gave up their own Christmas morning activities to ensure these children received toys, warm winter wear and even a visit with Santa.
Children have a mountain of toys from which to select at the annual East Liverpool Elks Lodge 258 Christmas party. (Photo by Jo Ann Bobby-Gilbert)
The tradition began about 100 years ago, according to Chairman Brad Goodballet, who said it initially began with members taking gifts to the homes of the children.
At that time, about 35 to 40 children benefited from the annual party, but as the decades passed the need grew, and there have been as many as 600 children served. Today, the average is 250-300, and families are required to have a ticket to participate.
"They need a ticket," Goodballet emphasized. "We plan on 250 to 300, so if 500 show up, there will be some very disappointed kids."
Several Elks members are teachers who distribute the tickets through the school district, where children in need are best
identified. Those in kindergarten through sixth grade are chosen, and member Beth Chupa, also a teacher, said siblings are generally included in the event when possible.
As the numbers of children grew, so did the number of Elk members who began helping with the annual Christmas event, with close to 70 members present to help out Wednesday.
Many members don't come alone, bringing their spouses or children, and some of those children come back year after year to help.
Joey Pittenger, for instance, began in the fifth grade, accompanying his mom, an Elks member. Now 23, Pittenger was among those helping children choose from a mountain of toys.
New traditions were also in evidence, with 5-year-old Kamryn Yanni spending her Christmas morning helping her family distribute goodies to others.
"She hasn't even opened her gifts at home yet," her mother pointed out.
"I think more and more members are becoming more aware and involved. It's something they should experience at least once," Goodballet said.
The mounds of remote control vehicles, games, dolls, stuffed animals and everything else imaginable come not from Santa, however, but from the hard work of Elks members and the generosity of the community.
Fundraisers are held throughout the year, and Goodballet said those "intensify in September" with a raffle also held among the 600 Elks members which includes a Chinese auction the night the raffle winner is named. This year, 85 items were donated to the auction by members and merchants.
One member who prefers to remain anonymous donates new bicycles every year, this year providing eight. Another person gave two new bicycles, and teachers pre-arrange with parents when a bicycle is their child's fondest Christmas wish.
Having come to the Elks herself as a child, Thelma Lockhart now gives back every year, according to Goodballet, who said she and her knitting group make 250 hats to be distributed.
Each child who visits gets a hat and gloves, three toys of their choice and a ball of some sort from a large selection of every type of ball. They also receive a cinch sack containing drug awareness literature and snack foods.
Goodballet said two of the biggest suppliers of toys for the yearly event are Rite Aid and Kmart, both of which offer drastic discounts. Rite Aid, he said, sells anything in the store to the Elks for a 50 percent discount, while Kmart orders and discounts all the balls that are handed out.
While the children are supposed to be the beneficiaries of all this generosity, the members receive even more, as evidenced by the smiles - and tears - seen Christmas morning.
Some spoke in hushed tones about the evident need as they saw the long line of parents and children waiting outside the Elks Lodge in the cold two hours before the doors opened.
Others counted their own blessings as they saw grateful parents whose children otherwise would have had nothing.
Still others wiped their tears as a little boy with his bag of new toys spied Santa sitting at the end of the room, opening the bag and pointing out to the jolly old elf everything he had chosen.
As they watched a little girl and her brother ride out the door on sparkling new bicycles, members smiled, another merry Christmas accomplished.