In celebration of the holiday season, students, faculty, and staff and the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith gathered together this week to pull the first angel tags from the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree.
The large, glittery faux pine in the Campus Center lobby has been decorated with paper tags from the Fort Smith Salvation Army each year for more than a decade, bringing the needs of the community to the eyes of those on campus. In 2016, the Salvation Army provided more than 13,000 gifts to children in the river valley region.
Captain Staci Gainey, with the Salvation Army, thanked the crowded room for attending the kick-off, but also for understanding what these requests truly mean. Though parents find so much happiness in watching their children open a play kitchen set or a new soccer ball, there are also tears in knowing that without this program their children wouldn’t have new shoes, blankets or coats for the winter, Gainey explained.
Joel Bustillos, took to the stage following Gainey, to share a first-hand perspective of the angel tree’s impact. A previous recipient of angel tree gifts, and one of four sons being raised by a single mother, Bustillos explained his mom’s struggle to embrace the glee felt by others during the Christmas season while dreading the bills she knew were hovering over her head. “While my mom dreaded the Christmas season, my brothers and I always looked forward to it.”
“When she heard of the Angel Tree Program, she immediately signed us up for it,” Bustillos said. “She always raised us to be grateful for anything and everything we received, and though a few presents may not have seemed much to some people, to me, they meant the world.”
As Bustillos got older, he learned where the gifts came from. He knew the enormous weight those gifts took off his mother, and the immense joy they brought to his family. “I couldn’t wait to give back,” he said with a smile. “Fast forward to the present times, and I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to give to the families that need it most.” As he exited the stage, Bustillos pulled a paper angel from the tree.
As the ceremony concluded, UAFS music students Reagan Heppner and Abbie Jones sang carols, and guests sipped cider and cocoa. Jane Sargent chose two angels, one whose gifts she would buy, and one whose gifts would be provided by the UAFS volleyball team. Stephanie London, Director of Student Activities and Jordan Dart, president of the UAFS Student Government Association, pulled tags next. In the half-hour that followed, the tree went from full to bare as more kind-hearted lions took tags with children’s names and needs for the holiday season.
The angels will adorn the tree in the campus center until December 1, and gifts are due back by December 2.
This year, the Lion Hearts organization is overseeing the campus Angel Tree and the collection of gifts, which may be dropped off in the Student Activities Office of the Smith Pendergraft Campus Center.
The Lion Hearts organization aims to empower students, staff, faculty, and UAFS supporters to work collaboratively with campus and community partners to become responsible global citizens and informed leaders through service to others