DELIVERY DAY: Columbus Firemen’s Cheer Fund and volunteers deliver up some Christmas surprises

Mike Wolanin | The Republic Brady McNealy, left, and his father Shawn load Jamie Estep’s vehicle with boxes of gifts from the Columbus Firemen’s Cheer Fund for delivery at the Cheer Fund building in Columbus, Ind., Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021.

The spirit of Christmas was on glorious display Saturday morning during delivery day for the Columbus Firemen’s Cheer Fund.

Just before the garage doors at the Cheer Fund headquarters at 2674 Verhulst St. opened for the charity’s 91st annual distribution, the line of cars and trucks volunteering to deliver gift boxes and goodie bags stretched more than six blocks.

That was quite a contrast to last year, when the fear of COVID-19 kept the line to no more than 20 vehicles at any given time.

The number of applications for assistance requested from several seasonal charities, including the Cheer Fund, totaled approximately 500 more than the 1,125 that submitted last year, Volunteer Action Center Director Alicia Monroe said. Her agency acts as a clearing house to ensure nobody attempts to take unfair advantage of the community’s generosity.

Considered Bartholomew County’s oldest charity that depends solely on public donations, the Cheer Fund “officially” assisted 989 children this year, co-chairman Ben Noblitt said. But unofficially, more than 100 additional kids scheduled to receive assistance through other programs also received gifts from the Cheer Fund.

“We have the resources to help other charities (who fell short on contributions),” Noblitt said. “Our monetary and toy donations have been through the roof this year.”

Precautions against the coronavirus required that every distributed item, from books and stuffed animals to bicycles and toys, had to be new, he explained. The value of each gift box is about $150, but because the charity buys in such high volume from different retailers, the actual amount the organization has to spend per box has dropped to less than $100, Noblitt said.

Since the Cheer Fund will continue to help children now on a waiting list whose parents missed the deadline, an exact total of assisted children won’t be available for several weeks. But one reason the charity can handle the demand is the popularity of online gift contributions made through such companies as Amazon, the co-chairman said.

The first vehicle in line to deliver gift boxes Saturday was Jamie Estep of Columbus, who said he arrived at 6:10 a.m. He was accompanied by his wife, two daughters and a grandchild.

But Estep shared the bragging rights of ‘first in line” with Kelley Poindexter of Columbus, because the two friends arrived as a team in different vehicles. Two of Estep’s daughters were riding with Poindexter and his baby son, instead of their parents.

Nobody can be absolutely sure who travelled the longest distance to deliver gifts and goodies, but it’s hard to imagine anyone coming further than Zach and Tameka Jacobs. The couple who reside near Bowling Green, Kentucky, drove two-and-a-half hours to be at the Cheer Fund headquarters on time.

“I used to help out the Cheer Fund when in high school,” said Tameka Jacobs, an Edinburgh native. “But I haven’t gotten to do it in awhile. I saw (the deliveries) were happening this morning, so I said to my husband that we’ve got to go. I love the Cheer Fund.”

Throughout the charity’s facility, several firefighters were being assisted by their family members. One was Allen Smith, a 24-year Columbus firefighter and 20-year Cheer Fund board member.

“You know there are times when you know people need help, and to just give of your resources is a way of passing your own blessings to others,” said Smith.

A few minutes after making that statement, Smith literally proved he doesn’t just talk the talk. He also walks the walk.

When one car entering the Cheer Fund building was discovered to have a flat tire with two puncture holes, Smith and six other firefighters switched into emergency mode. They briefly discussed a plan and gathered what was required to temporarily inflate the tire.

Meanwhile, Smith called up a nearby tire shop, told them the car was on its way, and said he would buy the new tire for the volunteer if the old one could not be patched.

Even if Smith’s wife, Frankie Jo, wasn’t married to a firefighter, she has her own reasons for assisting the seasonal charity every year.

“I was a recipient myself,” she said. “These Cheer Fund boxes would annually come to my house as a child, so we always knew we would have a Christmas. So this is just an awesome opportunity to give back.”

Besides the gift boxes, each child also receives a bag full of apples, oranges, candy and peppermint sticks prepared by Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame sportscaster Sam Simmermaker and his wife, Fran, a retired home economics educator.

The Simmermakers prepared 1,100 bags filled with edible goodies on Wednesday, Fran Simmermaker said.

As the last of the volunteer drivers were being loaded up, former Cheer Fund co-chairman Chris Owens smiled as he remarked how “awesome” it is to see the charity operated out of its own permanent home for the second year in a row.

“It’s absolutely amazing to not have to set everything up before the season and tear it down after the holidays,” Owens said. “And they keep improving on the process every year.”