Volunteers play Santa

Jacob Martin, 12, stared at a row of dolls as he tried to pick out the perfect gift for a 3-year-old girl.

Not having much experience with selecting dolls, he turned to his mother, who stood nearby, for a few suggestions.

Jacob, a member of the St. Amant Middle School Beta Club, was one of more than 100 volunteers who shopped Dec. 13 for 520 children as part of Sheriff Jeff Wiley’s Christmas Crusade for Children.

After a few minutes of indecision, Jacob decided on a “Dora the Explorer Mermaid” doll.

It didn’t take Paige Zeringue, 11, and her mother, Lori Zeringue, long to purchase gifts for four children.

“We’re pros at shopping ... because we have a big, really big family,” Paige said.

Lori Zeringue said she and her daughter, who is a member of the Lake Elementary School Beta club, decided to take part in the program because was it “was a good learning experience.”

The Zeringues took less than 10 minutes to pick out their toys and head to the Wal-Mart register.

Wiley, who has been sponsoring the program for more than 20 years, solicits donations throughout the year to pay for toys, clothes and other items for children “who may not have Christmas without this program,” Dep. Janet Fontenot, event organizer, said.

In addition to collecting cash, program volunteers have toy drives at area stores and accept toy donations from area businesses. Area school groups also hold fundraisers and make donations to the program, Fontenot said.

“We couldn’t do this without the support of lots of people in the community,” she said.

On shopping night, volunteers lined up at the Gonzales Wal-Mart to pick up the wish lists of children whose parents had registered for the program. Shoppers spend $30 on each child.

In all, Wiley’s Christmas Crusade for Children helped more than 602 children from 240 families across the parish.

On Saturday, the dolls, trucks, games, clothes and other items were distributed by members of the Sheriff’s Office in Gonzales and Donaldsonville.

Wiley supplements the toy drive with donations of bikes that are refurbished by inmates at Angola State Penitentiary. The inmates also provide handmade wooden toys, which were handed out Saturday.

Wiley and his staff have perfected a system that speeds up the process and its efficiency.

Index cards are color-coded representing families on the east and west banks of the parish. Each card contains a child’s age and suggested gift list. Volunteers at specially marked registers ring up the purchases, and sheriff’s staff and trusties from the parish jail bag each child’s gifts. A family bag containing the gifts for each child is marked and housed in a large truck until distribution day.

Many of the shoppers were children and teens who learned about the program from a school club.

St. Amant Middle School student Ke’Aisha Keller, 11, and mom, LaToya Keller, had five children to shop for.

“It’s good to help people who can’t get gifts for their kids,” LaToya Keller said. “It feels good to help and she’s happy doing it.”

The toy department aisles were jammed with shoppers filling wish lists. Across the store volunteers looked for anything from diapers to shoes.

Anyone wishing to donate used or new bikes throughout the year can call (225) 621-8322.

“We couldn’t do this without the support of the community, and this year, the community has been tremendous,” Fontenot said.