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Making children’s spirits bright

All over the Rogue Valley, Santa’s workshops are abuzz with activity. But it’s doubtful any are busier than Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4116 in Rogue River.

Donned Tuesday in Santa hats and gay holiday-theme apparel, a dozen or so elves — aka members of the VFW Auxiliary — frantically wrapped lots of toys and goodies for approximately 200 children in the Rogue River area.

Sherry Prudhon, president of the auxiliary, was making a list and checking it twice as she navigated through streams of brightly colored wrapping paper and a parade of dolls, puzzles and games.

“We’re getting more and more names of kids,” she said, adding with confidence that the auxiliary would be able to grant each child’s wish. “We have to give a shout-out to the community for making it possible.”

Several bikes and other high-dollar items stood as testimony to the spirit of generosity.

It was all business in the makeshift toy store. Santa’s sleigh — engines and pumpers from the Rogue River and Evans Valley fire departments — will make deliveries Saturday, Dec. 18, so there was no time to waste.

Lois Akers’ fingers never stopped as she commented on why she’s participated in the organized chaos for the last seven years.

“It’s Christmas, of course. I like to make people happy,” she said.

Karen Houseman said she’s following in the footsteps of her mother, a member of the auxiliary for 30 years. Last year, she said, she witnessed “the children’s smiles and faces lighting up” when they delivered the toys.

“That makes all this very rewarding,” she said.

Terry Montoya and her sister Delores Macias sorted through mountains of knitted mittens, caps and socks and stuffed gift bags full of toys for children of the post’s adopted Oregon Army National Guard units in Merlin, Medford, Ashland and Roseburg.

Non-auxiliary members, both women said they “love seeing the community work together and be happy.”

Prudhon called them “a godsend.”

For the fourth year, the auxiliary collected and purchased hundreds of toys for the Rogue River Christmas Partners Project, and as it has done for the last several years, partnered with Operation Homefront’s annual holiday toy drive.

To accomplish its mission to help make the season bright for the children of the 1186th of the National Guard, Prudhon and an army of volunteers rounded up toys from seven Dollar Tree stores around the Rogue Valley. (Dollar Tree is a major sponsor of Operation Homefront’s toy drive.)

Jeanette Thorn, a member of the auxiliary for two decades, was one of the elves who filled 400 wrapped toilet-paper rolls with candy for the National Guard families. It’s just one of a few of her favorite things to do. A mother of four, grandmother and former day care operator, Thorn said “being orientated to kids is second nature.”

On Dec. 5, the post along with Cattleman’s Saloon hosted its annual decorated Christmas tree auction that raked in more than $4,000. That event (the creation of Jinny Neiswanger) and other community-sponsored fundraisers made that last shop ‘til they drop shopping spree for the children of Rogue River, Wimer and Gold Hill possible.

An incident after the tree auction is what keeps the fire burning in Prudhon.

She said a community member purchased one of the trees then donated it back to the post to deliver it to a family in need.

“We had a family with three children … the mom had just been laid off from her job, and as a result her car was repossessed … they had nothing for Christmas,” she recalled. “I delivered (the tree) to their front door, and the mom’s face just lit up. Later she sent me a picture of her little girl standing in front of the tree. She’d come home from school to find the surprise and was just in awe. That makes my heart warm; that keeps me going.”

It’s been a 24/7 tour of duty for Prudhon and the auxiliary since serving the post’s annual community Thanksgiving dinner. And after the last toy is delivered, she and the auxiliary will put the finishing touches on the community Christmas dinner. In between events, they will spread Christmas cheer to a homeless father and his teenage daughter the post has adopted.

The hustle and bustle around Post 4116 is pretty much a year-round affair. And the 300-plus member post isn’t kid-oriented only at Christmas time.

In the fall, the post partners with Operation Homefront to deliver backpacks stuffed with school supplies to Rogue River-area students, and at Halloween it hosts a safe house where some years 700 trick-or-treaters come by to play games, earn prizes and load up on candy. In the spring, hundreds of Easter baskets are delivered to foster children in Jackson County.

Annually, thanks to the Labor Day Patriot’s Run — a barbecue and motorcycle rally started by Prudhon and her husband, Andy — the post hands out four $1,500 scholarships to Rogue River High School graduates every June.

The post and auxiliary also sponsors the Americanism program for fourth-graders at Rogue River Elementary, the Patriot’s Pen essay contest at Rogue River Junior High School and the Voice of Democracy competition at the high school.

Prudhon wants the community to know that the VFW is more than a place for vets to come by and swap war stories.

“First and foremost, we’re here to serve the vets,” Prudhon said. “But we’ve made a commitment to the community. We want them to understand, we’re here for them.”

She’s quick to point out that the work of the 130-member auxiliary is not just “woman’s work.”

“We’re no longer a ‘ladies auxiliary,’ ” she said. “With so many women serving in the military and being deployed … as of August 2015, eligible spouses, sons and fathers can join. We just had our first male join recently.”

It’s a family affair.

Reach Grants Pass freelance writer Tammy Asnicar at tammyasnicar@q.com.

Darlene Christie of Rogue River wraps presents Tuesday while volunteering for the Rogue River Community Partners' Christmas project at the VFW Post 4116 in Rogue River. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch