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Operation Homefront, Camp Ripley spread Christmas cheer to military families

LITTLE FALLS — As St. Cloud’s Natasha Pederson prepared to leave Camp Ripley on Sunday, she was grateful.

Pederson was grateful that Operation Homefront and Camp Ripley’s Family Assistance Center were working together to provide toys for the families of current and former service members.

She also was grateful that her husband, who is serving in Afghanistan, is expected home by Christmas. But most of all she was just grateful that her 4-year-old son Conner, who is autistic, has a chance to have a truly merry Christmas.

Pederson recently lost her job, making money tight for the family this holiday season. Sunday’s holiday toy drive offered a wealth of gifts for Conner and peace of mind for his mother.

“My husband makes enough, but money is really, really, really, tight,” she said. “We don’t have much left over, so with Christmas coming I honestly didn’t know how I was going to give Conner a Christmas. Something like this is just amazingly helpful.”

More than 70 children stopped by the event Sunday and dozens more were expected to have gifts delivered to them later in the day, according to Tami Klucas, who helped organize the event. In all, about 100 children would receive gift donations, Klucas said.

“It’s my favorite part of my job. We deal with a lot of difficult things in what I do and this time of year, everybody needs just a little more Christmas spirit,” Klucas said.

The toys given away Sunday consisted of donations collected from Dollar Tree stores from around Minnesota along with contributions from Operation Homefront. Darcy Clardy of Operation Homefront said the support for the event has been awe-inspiring.

“The volume that comes in is just amazing. When we are done with these events we can give the extra toys out to the Salvation Army, shelters, different church charities, inner-city youth groups, boys and girls clubs ... wherever there’s a need we try to provide it if we have extra toys,” she said.

Cassie James of Rice was in attendance Sunday with her mother, Pat, 1-year-old daughter Lorelai and 3-year-old son Sage. When he wasn’t by his mother’s side, Sage could be found scooting across the floor in hot pursuit of his trio of toy trucks.

James, whose husband is deployed with the 850th Horizontal Engineer Company, said the event comes at the perfect time and could have far-reaching effects on area military families. She said the generosity along with her husband’s homecoming should make for a happy holiday season for her and other military families.

“There will be a lot of extremely happy people in the 850th,” she said.

Both Clardy and Klucas said one of the event’s goals is to help let families escape reality for a short time so they can just have fun.

“It’s great to see the kids light up,” Clardy said. “They get to shop, and get toys and play, and have goodies and all the good stuff. It really brings home all that whole Christmas spirit.”

Planning the event isn’t always easy, but it’s most definitely worth it, Klucas said.

“It’s a lot of work, I’ll admit it. And it’s a lot of stress leading up to it. But it’s absolutely fantastic to know that people who would never seek out this type of help come here,” she said.

For Pederson, as much as the day was about providing toys for her son, it also was about helping him understand the true meaning of Christmas.

“This is the first time that he really understands what Christmas is about ... it’s so hard to explain through words to get him to understand what things mean,” Pederson said. “This way he’s able to come here and when he opens up those presents he remembers the people that gathered around and gave them.”

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