LUMBERTON — Ten-year-old Erick McDonald Jr. couldn’t believe all of the gifts he and his sister Makaya, 8, and their little brother Derrick, 2, had to open Christmas morning.
“This is awesome,” he said as he excitedly unwrapped and looked over the huge pile of presents that filled his hotel room at the Motel 6 in Lumberton. “I didn’t expect all of this, but I’m glad I got it.”
The McDonald children were just three of more than 400 staying in local hotels as a result of Hurricane Matthew who had a great Christmas thanks to a Fairmont woman who believes that no child should not have presents to open on Christmas morning.
Lynnettah Hunt, Santa, Mrs. Santa, and about 20 volunteers got up early Christmas morning and visited 10 Lumberton hotels, distributing thousands of wrapped presents to children from more than 160 families. Another 100 children had received their gifts earlier in the month, according to Hunt.
“I really enjoyed it,” she said. “I was glad I could put a smile on the faces of these children.”
For more than five weeks, Hunt had worked tirelessly recruiting sponsors — including churches, organizations and individuals — for her drive to provide toys and other items needed by those she refers to as “my children.” The support she received from local and out of area communities was so great, she said, that she had to store donated items in a building at the Robeson County Fairgrounds.
“Five weeks ago, after I read that there were still 600 children in hotels because they lost their homes as a result of the hurricane, I knew I had to do something to help,” she said. “The Lord just laid it on my heart. I knew I had a mission.”
Hunt went to all of the hotels and collected the names, room numbers and ages of all of the children who were there as a result of Hurricane Matthew. The ages of children who received gifts ranged from 2 weeks to 18 years, she said.
Each child received about eight to 10 wrapped gifts. In addition to three “main gifts” of $30 or more and “stocking stuffers” with items valued into the $20 range, each child received a Bible, coat, blanket, stuffed animal, and bag of candy.
“I wanted to make sure each child had plenty of gifts to unwrap,” Hunt said.
Beginning at 7:30 Christmas morning, a 40-foot trailer packed with the gifts started pulling up at each of the hotels, where the child, or an adult from the child’s room, was greeted by Santa, Mrs. Santa and other volunteers and received the large bags of gifts prepared especially for them.
“This is really great,” said Fantasia Carter as she watched her 4-year-old son, Jaurice, and others receive their gifts at the Atkinson Inn and Suites in West Lumberton. Carter has been staying at the hotel since losing her home on West Fifth Street.
“He (Jaurice) is so excited about seeing Santa that he wouldn’t go to bed last night,” Carter said. “This is really helping us out. Without this we would have had nothing.”
At Motel 6, Brooke Chavis echoed Carter’s remarks. Chavis has two young daughters, Amiya Goodman and Kamella Roper.
“This means a lot,” Chavis said. “Without it, this wouldn’t have been much of a Christmas.”
For the volunteers, the event was also fun and meaningful. Santa, Mike Jackson, and Mrs. Santa, Lynn Gall, both from Orrum and members of the Vertical Church, were portraying the traditional Christmas characters for the first time.
“I’m really enjoying this,” said Jackson. “There are still a lot of people displaced from the hurricane. I want to do what I can to help them.”
Gall, a teacher at Fairmont High School, was glad she gave up part of her Christmas to help make it a happy day for those children at the hotels.
“This is giving back to the community,” she said.
Hunt said late Christmas afternoon that she was thrilled to see children at the Super 8 hotel outside playing with the remote cars they had received as part of their gift bag earlier in the day.
“That really touched my heart,” she said.
Hunt said she was recently appointed to a committee of public officials and community members who will be overseeing Robeson County’s long-term hurricane disaster recovery efforts.
“I now have another mission,” she said. “I’m going to be working to make sure that these children are treated right during the long-term recovery efforts.”
Bob Shiles can be reached at 910-416-5165.