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For kids who survived tornadoes, Santa comes 'a little bit differently' this year

Volunteers and community members attend the WPKY toy drive in Princeton, Ky.
Jeff Dean
/
NPR
Volunteers and community members attend the WPKY toy drive in Princeton, Ky.

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After their home was destroyed by tornadoes, Tammy McKinney's 9-year-old son, Sammy, was afraid that Santa wouldn't know where to find him.

"He thought Santa Claus has forgot about us and I told him, 'No he has not. He knows where we are all the time,'" she said. "You gotta do what you gotta do for kids, to make them a little bit more hopeful."

But Santa found Sammy. That was clear from the bags he was carrying, overflowing with toys, during a gift distribution in Hardin, Ky., at one of several state parks that's housing many displaced families.

"Garbage truck, a Santa hat, oh! and a shooting star!" he said, pulling out an eye mask decorated with stars.

There was even a remote control Buzz Lightyear, all of it donated as part of a drive for survivors, organized by Kentucky first lady Britainy Beshear.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear attends the Christmas toy drive at Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park in Gilbertsville, Ky.
Jeff Dean / NPR
/
NPR
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear attends the Christmas toy drive at Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park in Gilbertsville, Ky.

Help from neighbors near and far

This Christmas will be far from normal for the many western Kentucky families who've lost homes or loved ones to the tornadoes earlier this month. The storm killed 76 people died and left hundreds in temporary shelters.

For the children whose lives were upended, volunteers from across Kentucky — and across the country — are working to make sure they have something to unwrap this Christmas.

Cheryl Crouch came with a group from First Baptist Church in nearby Murray to help wrap presents. Like so many, Crouch's church has jumped in to "help our neighbors," housing relief workers and hosting a holiday party here earlier this week.

"And we had cookie decorating and making ornaments for the trees. Just trying to bring a little Christmas to a difficult time," Crouch said.

Volunteers and community members attend the WPKY toy drive in Princeton. Bags are filled with gifts at a Christmas toy drive at Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park in Gilbertsville.
/ Jeff Dean/NPR
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Jeff Dean/NPR
Volunteers and community members attend the WPKY toy drive in Princeton. Bags are filled with gifts at a Christmas toy drive at Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park in Gilbertsville.

'A breath of fresh air'

For Jaide Dillon, the focus has been on projecting joy and calm this holiday season.

"If I'm happy, my kids are gonna be happy," Dillon said. "The night it happened, my kids fed off of what I was doing. If mama was scared and everything my kids were scared. If I was calm my kids were calm. So it's all in how you are with your kids."

She acknowledged it's not always easy right now to put on a happy face.

"It is hard," she said. "I spend a lot of time in the bathroom."

The back wall of their home in Mayfield was torn off, while they hid in the basement. For now, they're living in a cottage here at the park, which Dillon's best friend decorated with a Christmas tree. She says the fact that her kids can come and load up with presents — a basketball, a ukulele — it all helps.

"It puts their minds off of what they just went through, what they experienced, you know?" Dillon said. "This is a breath of fresh air for the kids."

Gov. Andy Beshear spent Tuesday traveling across the region, visiting several of the parks where gifts are being distributed. In Hardin, he asked the kids how their Christmas lists were coming along.

"Oh! You got thing you always wanted!" Beshear told a little girl who showed him a Minnie Mouse toy she'd claimed. "Man, Santa's pretty good, isn't he? He just came a little bit differently this year wanting to make sure you all got what you wanted the most. Right? I love that."

Members of the 1123 Sappers, Kentucky National Guard, perform a health and wellness check in Mayfield, Ky.
Jeff Dean / NPR
/
NPR
Members of the 1123 Sappers, Kentucky National Guard, perform a health and wellness check in Mayfield, Ky.
Members of the 1123 Sappers, Kentucky National Guard, perform a health and wellness check in Mayfield, Ky. Christmas decorations sit amongst debris in Dawson Springs.
/ Jeff Dean/NPR
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Jeff Dean/NPR
Members of the 1123 Sappers, Kentucky National Guard, perform a health and wellness check in Mayfield, Ky. Christmas decorations sit amongst debris in Dawson Springs.

Still 'so much good'

Over just a few days, the governor's office says more than $200,000 in cash and gift cards, and hundreds of thousands of toys, were donated by people across the country. Volunteers will hand out more of those toys before Christmas at a second round of parties across western Kentucky Thursday.

There were more donations, Beshear said, than they expect to be able to give to tornado survivors this Christmas.

"We have so much that I believe we're gonna be taking toys to people on their birthdays this next year," Beshear said. "There's so much good still in our country, and our world, and you see it today."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Volunteers and community members attend the WPKY toy drive in Princeton, Ky.
Jeff Dean / NPR
/
NPR
Volunteers and community members attend the WPKY toy drive in Princeton, Ky.