Santa delivers cheer by firetruck

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Panhandle Project brings gifts, food to families in need

Michele Roberts
For The Lancaster News
INDIAN LAND – Santa took time out of his busy schedule Christmas Eve to accompany the Pleasant Valley and Indian Land fire departments for the 20th year of the Panhandle Project, which distributes Christmas gifts and other goodies to local families in need.
Volunteers gathered at the Pleasant Valley Fire Department early Dec. 24 to load presents and food boxes onto the firetrucks, which were bound for the homes of 28 families in the panhandle area of Lancaster County.
Twenty-two turkeys would be ready to come off the smokers of 521 BBQ at 3 p.m. that day, meaning volunteers would come back after their first run and go to the residences a second time to make sure all the Christmas trimmings would be complete.
“There are countless volunteer hours that go into to making this possible,” said Lancaster County Fire Marshal Stephen Blackwelder, a captain at Pleasant Valley Fire Department.
“So many different people participate with donations of all kinds and the local churches and schools are an integral part of the process. It is definitely a community-wide project.”
The project, organized by Keith and Susan Wilson, gets its start the first full week of October, which is Fire Prevention Week.
School teachers, counselors and other word-of-mouth news enable the firefighters to get the names of those who need help most as they visit the schools for activities planned around that week.
A list is composed by Halloween, and on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, area churches get the angel tags to hang on their angel trees.
“We do it that way so the names are in hand before Black Friday, when so many people are out doing their shopping,” Wilson said.
The Christmas drive is also an Explorer project. Justin Nash, 16, and Thomas Vitek, 16, have participated in the drive for two and three years, respectively.
“My favorite part of it all is seeing the way the families react,” Nash said.
“This has really opened my eyes about life,” Vitek added. “And how important it is not to take anything for granted.”
Along with the presents and food items, firefighters also install smoke detectors in the homes and check batteries in detectors already in place.
Wilson said there was at least one time when this part of the drive has been proven to be a lifesaver.
“A few years ago, we installed three smoke detectors in a home during the Christmas drive,” Wilson said. “And it was sometime in February or March of the following year that the house burned, but everyone got out alive because of the smoke detectors, and only one person was burned.
“That was an incident that made it all worthwhile, because we were so glad that no one got hurt.”
Their first stop on Christmas Eve was at the home of the Sibrans family, where 19-month-old Stella seemed delighted with all the commotion.
While she didn’t want to give Santa (aka Raymond Roberts) a hug, she was more than glad to high-five him for his efforts.
Then it was down the road to the home of 8-year-old Matthew Murray, where the caravan of trucks arrived with lights flashing and sirens blaring.
“I really wasn’t expecting all of this,” said his mom, Kelly. “It’s just amazing and wonderful, and I want to thank everyone so much for doing this.”
After a full day of making stops at 28 homes, Santa took a detour through the Legacy Park neighborhood to greet children and hand out more treats on his way home.
For details about the project, call the Pleasant Valley Fire Department at (803) 548-5600.