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United Methodist makes Christmas happy for hundreds

11/7/2003 News media contact: Linda Green · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn

Photographs are available.

By Fran Walsh*

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Lolly Webster sorts through some of the toys she purchased for needy children at Christmas. UMNS photo by Peyton Hoge, Photo number 03-431, Accompanies UMNS #539, 11/7/03

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Christmas Shopping Secrets, Photo number W03084, Accompanies UMNS #539

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Lolly Webster stands in her garage where she stores toys and clothing she has purchased throughout the year for needy children at Christmas. UMNS photo by Peyton Hoge, Photo number 03-433, Accompanies UMNS #539, 11/7/03

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The Rev. J.J. Derden of Hendrix College (left) and Becky Rogenmoser of Lambuth University work on the foundation for a Methodist day school in Chincha, Peru in this 2002 file photo. A UMNS photo by Andrew Thompson, Lambuth University. Photo number 03-419, Accompanies UMNS #539, 11/6/03

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Lolly Webster sits in her living room among many of the Christmas gifts she has wrapped that will be given to needy families during the holiday season. UMNS photo by Peyton Hoge, Photo number 03-432, Accompanies UMNS #539, 11/7/03
SMARTT, Tenn. (UMNS) - Stores may be just beginning the Christmas sales season, but Lolly Webster has her gifts purchased and wrapped. In fact, she's been finished with her holiday shopping since the Fourth of July.

Webster calls her garage "Santa's Workshop," and inside she stores the dozens of dolls, trucks, sweaters and stuffed animals she'll share with strangers during the season of giving. The energetic retiree says it's fun to see how much she can get for her money. And it's even more fun to share those bargains with families in need.

All year, this Smartt shopper scours clearance racks and seasonal sales to find items. Her goal is "that children are happy. So they can go back to school and say 'I got ...' and name stuff. There's nothing sadder than a kid who has to go back and say, 'one thing or two things.'"

From 1978 until 1993, Webster worked in western New York state for the Department of Social Services. Part of her job involved providing Christmas gifts for children on the welfare rolls. Webster was determined that each of the 500 children a year would receive more than one item.

"I wanted each child not to just get a toy, but a bag of toys," she says. So this mother of two found creative ways to work within a tight budget, like visiting a nearby auction to get the cheapest deals possible.

"My children grew up never having turkey on Thanksgiving. We went to Pennsylvania solely to buy toys for children on Thanksgiving Day," she recalls.

Not only did she buy gifts as part of her on-the-job duties, she and her family sacrificed and adopted needy families every Christmas. It didn't feel like a tough choice to Webster, who attends Christ United Methodist Church. "What you give comes back to you 10 times. I think that's what we're here for, is to give," she says.

Webster says she learned to share from her mother, who spent lots of time shopping for clothes and gifts for a niece with nine children. From an early age, she learned "people help people."

Her husband Bev, who died this spring, had trouble adjusting to Lolly's drive. He tended to worry about his own family's finances first, his wife says, but soon he learned that "it didn't matter how much you give away. You're going to make it."

She said he wouldn't be surprised to see one of his shirts on a stranger he'd pass on the street because if a client who had nothing came into the office, she would go home and get clothes for the person.

Webster asks the local Head Start office for names of struggling families with children. For the past few years, she has contacted the Harmony House Drop-in Center to ask for names of adult mentally ill clients who have no one to remember them at Christmas.

"You just don't know what it meant to them. They just glowed," says Harmony House director Joy Prater. Since the focus is on children at Christmas, "so many people don't think of people with mental illness, but she does. That helps me, that somebody that needs some attention is getting it."

Lolly's daughter, Lori, says she has learned from her mom "the art of giving and caring for people, and putting yourself second."

Lolly says she has no idea how many children she's helped over the years. "But God knows."

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*Walsh is coordinating producer for United Methodist News Service's UMTV unit.

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