At the VFW Hall “North Pole” in downtown Missoula, more than a dozen jolly “elves” quickly filled socks with small gifts and treats to the sounds of Christmas music and laughter.
Susan Campbell Reneau, decked out in holiday colors and donning a Santa hat with elf ears, shuffled around the room, directing volunteers from one box of goodies to the next in assembly-line fashion.
“She’s like the energizer bunny,” said volunteer “elf” Pat Culver, before diving into a box of pencils to pick one for the sock she was stuffing.
And she has to be — they have a lot of work to do.
With United States of Hope VFW and thousands of donations from businesses and individuals in the area, Reneau and her elves plan to stuff at least 1,000 pairs of socks with toys, lotions, lip balm, candy and other treats to be delivered to veterans across the Missoula and Bitterroot valleys.
Reneau started the Santa Socks for Veterans event in 2008 and said it's been growing ever since.
“That first year, we did 100 socks,” she said, adding that she's thankful for what it has become since.
Reneau’s father is a veteran, as well as her husband Jack, so veterans' issues hit close to home. After realizing that many veterans in nursing homes and shelters get lonely, especially during the holiday season, Reneau said she was inspired to do something about it.
Culver, who has been volunteering at the event for 10 years, also comes from a military family. Her dad, brothers and uncles are all veterans.
“There are a lot of veterans in nursing homes and shelters that don’t get out,” she said. “They’re lonely and need some love.”
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Reneau said stuffing the socks is fun, but a lot of work.
“It’s going to take a lot of sweat to get everything done, but it’s worth it when you actually get to see somebody’s face light up,” she said, adding that delivering the socks is the most rewarding part.
“It’s unbelievably overwhelming,” she said. “Over the years we’ve heard so many wonderful stories. A lot of times they just burst into tears."
Tearing up a bit herself, Reneau said she has been overwhelmed by the number of donations they received this year, adding they have more socks than they can stuff.
And because of the swell in donations, for the first time they’ll be sending the extra unstuffed socks to veterans overseas.
“The VFW auxiliary is going to put together care packages and we are going to put some of our really cool Cabela's socks and Costco socks in there and send them over to the troops in Afghanistan,” Reneau said.
In addition to socks, veterans will receive Christmas cards made by children at Russell Elementary School and Washington Middle School.
Culver said it’s always nice to see a big smile emerge on a veteran’s face after receiving a sock or a card.
“The look in their eyes is so special to me,” she said. “It’s nice to bring some holiday cheer to veterans.”