Rain, cold don’t deter Tacoma families from ‘shopping’ at Hilltop church for Christmas

VIDEO:Toy giveaway attracts crowd at Tacoma's Allen AME Church

Dozens of disadvantaged waited in the cold for the opportunity to make Christmas special for their children.
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Dozens of disadvantaged waited in the cold for the opportunity to make Christmas special for their children.

The pre-dawn scene outside the Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood Saturday offered a snapshot of commitment and generosity.

A line of people, bundled under layers of clothing and some wrapped in comforters, stretched around the building at 13th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

Those at the front of the line had been waiting outside almost 24 hours, weathering the rain and cold for first pick of the hundreds of toys available from the church’s 26th annual Christmas House Project.

As the sky lightened, people stretched their stiff limbs and started talking about what waited just behind the church’s glass doors.

“I’m not going to lie, I came here because they have good gifts,” said Dia Barnwell. “They have bicycles. I can’t afford bicycles for my girls.”

The mother of two has come to the church the last two years; this year was her first overnight.

Barnwell arrived at 11 a.m. Friday and was one of the first 20 people in line.

I’m not going to lie, I came here because they have good gifts.

Dia Barnwell, mother of two

“I feel blessed for having this because honestly my kids wouldn’t have a Christmas otherwise,” she said of her 10- and 6-year-old daughters.

Others echoed similar stories about being forced to choose between buying presents or paying bills.

“There is a need if you are willing to stand out in the freezing cold to get gifts for your children,” said Theresa Steele, wife of church pastor the Rev. Anthony Steele.

That need has grown in recent years, said church member Carol Hill, who helped organize the event.

“Our goal is to buy 1,000 toys and serve 500 families,” she said.

Last year, 457 families were helped, according to co-organizer Irma Brown. That amounted to 1,500 children, she said.

“Twenty-six years ago we never visualized this,” Brown said of the event’s beginnings.

The church buys the most of the gifts with money received from organizations such as the Muckleshoot and Puyallup tribes, two of its largest financial contributors.

Church members also donate toys, and community groups hold toy drives to help, Brown said.

Our goal is to buy 1,000 toys and serve 500 families.

Carol Hill, Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church event co-organizer

Inside the church Saturday, toys lined tables and were stacked on the floor. Bicycles, scooters and skateboards were near the door. A pile of stuffed animals lay waiting to be thrown into black plastic garbage bags.

Each “shopper” was allowed two new toys before selecting second-hand items. Downstairs donated clothes and blankets waited.

To keep things organized, church volunteers metered the number of people coming into the building. People went to the sanctuary first to warm up while waiting to shop.

Once inside the toy room, volunteers were assigned to help select gifts.

Children who came with their parents went to the basement to meet Santa and play.

Tanderlon Carter has come to the church’s giveaway for close to 20 years, ever since her grown children were little, she said.

Carter walked away Saturday with gifts for her grandchildren, something she couldn’t afford on her fixed income.

“It’s a must that I get my grandkids something,” she said. “I hope God keeps blessing these churches to continue to do this.”

Brynn Grimley: 253-597-8467, @bgrimley