Merry Christmas Mission

Published 7:00 pm Sunday, December 12, 2010

He grew up in boys homes. He’s spent Christmas alone a fewtimes. He knows what it’s like.

Sontag’s Rich Huffstutler, 48, remembers the immense lonelinessgenerated by solitude on Christmas, and those memories caused himto think about a small group of Mississippians facing similarholiday fates, a group he holds in the highest regard – veterans.In 2009, Huffstutler collected and distributed Christmas cards forthe veterans who had to spend Dec. 25 in the G.V. Sonny MontgomeryVA Medical Center in Jackson as a way to say “thank you” for theirservice.

This year, he wants the state’s warriors to have an even merrierChristmas. On Dec. 15, he’ll head back to the VA center, not withcards, but with stockings stuffed to the top with gifts for thosewho’ve served.

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“Sometimes we get numb and forget while we were dodging traffic,they were dodging bullets. I don’t want them to think that becausethey’re back and not active duty anymore, we’ve forgotten aboutthem,” said Huffstutler, himself a veteran of the Navy’s SeaBeeconstruction battalions in the 1980s.

So far, Huffstutler has about 230 Christmas stockings packedwith numerous small items. The stockings contain candy and nuts,puzzle books, playing cards, ornaments, socks, gloves, caps,toiletries and more – just enough items to show the veterans thatthey’re loved, appreciated and remembered.

And it’s not just Huffstutler who loves, appreciates andremembers them. He’s had help.

With the help of statewide media, Huffstutler held a one-daydrive at a pair of Wal-Mart stores in Jackson that saw shoppersdonate generously to his campaign. The Whistlestop CafĂ© inMonticello has served as a drop-off point for Lawrence Countycitizens donating items. Lawrence County’s Girl Scouts have pitchedin, and so has Lawrence County High School’s JROTC. The youth athis church – Bethel Baptist Church in Sontag – have also chippedin.

“There were people coming in and out of the Wal-Marts who putcash in a stocking, and I’ve used that cash to buy more gifts,”Huffstutler said. “Whatever cash I end up with, I’m going to stuffinto the stockings so if a vet needs a little extra spending moneyfor a cup of coffee or something, he’ll have it.”

And while Huffstutler is pretty much loaded with the items heneeds and makes his trip to visit the vets in three days, it’sstill not too late to assist him in making Christmas merry forhospitalized veterans. Anyone who wishes to contribute to thecampaign may donate items at the Brookhaven Wal-Mart or contact himat 601-748-7474. The drop-off point at Wal-Mart is in the visioncenter.

Huffstutler should enough stuffed stockings to spare, ensuringthe veterans at the VA center have plenty for Christmas. Anythingleft over will be passed out at Jackson’s VA nursing homes, hesaid.

“They wore the uniforms. We appreciate the service,” hesaid.

In its second year, Huffstutler’s unofficial charity to brightenthe holiday days of veterans has come a long way since lastChristmas.

In 2009, he collected enough Christmas cards to give eachveteran at the VA center a stack of 20 and still had plenty to taketo the nursing homes. He repeated the drive for Valentine’sDay.

Those two successes led him to aim higher.

“There was a saying I heard a long time ago – ‘You can borrow$10,000 just as easy as you can borrow $10.’ If people will givecards, why not try to step it up a little bit?” Huffstutlersaid.

Huffstutler hopes to build his stocking drive into an annualevent. That would be just fine with Bethel Baptist Church PastorMike Smith, who said Huffstutler’s campaign has created a missionsopportunity for the church.

“We just kind of attribute this thing to a God-centered vision,”Smith said. “This thing was created from his heart for serving theLord and serving other people. Our church has supported this fromthe ground level.”

Mario Rossillli, public affairs officer for the VA center,wouldn’t mind more participation on behalf of veterans, either.

“We always appreciate the people who take the time out to makedonations that can help veterans’ holidays a little more special,”he said. “There are always needs for veterans and those who arehospitalized.”

Rossilli said anyone can volunteer to work with veterans at anytime of year by calling the center’s voluntary services office at601-364-1391.

“There are so many things we can always use,” he said. “For theveterans, it’s a gesture that lets them know they’re remembered andthought of.”