As church bells tolled Sunday morning in Columbia, hundreds of people left their houses and cars to walk several blocks and converge on the borough fire department.

It was a town on a mission, as these volunteers queued up to help wrangle frozen turkeys, cereal boxes, bags of oranges, canned vegetables and more into big cardboard boxes. It was all part of the annual Columbia Christmas Food Box Delivery, which brings donated food and toys to the homes of needy families.

Ken Kramer, who has been organizing the food drive since it started 24 years ago — with one box and a handful of volunteers — said this year's event delivered 770 boxes of food within Columbia and throughout the western part of Lancaster County.

Last year, about 650 boxes of food were distributed.

"We're also delivering toys for over 800 kids, ages 12 and under," Kramer said. "Every child gets two toys."

Kramer explained he and his wife, Becky, organize the drive in conjunction with the Columbia Lions Club, the local Sunsnappers men's service club, the Columbia-Middletown Elks No. 1074 and other local groups.

Kramer said these organizations find out about needy families through schools, senior centers and social-service organizations.

Robin Gamby, Exalted Ruler of the Elks club, estimated the volunteer crowd at more than 300 this year. She and her husband, Lions Club President Jack Gamby, said the food is donated by many local businesses, including Turkey Hill, Nissin Foods, Kellogg's and Musser's Markets.

"One special thing about this," Jack Gamby said, "is that we deliver the food right to the people's homes. They don't have to come pick them up."

Buzzing with volunteers

With Christmas music blaring from speakers under the fire hall's bingo board, the room was a beehive of activity. Thunderous laughter and chatter created a second soundtrack for the hard work of packing boxes and shopping bags, toting them out into the frosty morning air and stacking them in trucks, fire engines, vans and cars.

Inside the warm fire hall, volunteers slid boxes along an assembly line of tables, with others packing them with milk, sugar, flour, stuffing mix, canned yams, apples, potatoes and more. Black plastic bags filled with toys, each tagged with the name and address of an area family with kids, were organized on several other tables by another set of volunteers.

The worker bees ranged from toddlers to seniors.

The oldest Sunsnappers member, Wilbur Bish, 91, pushed plastic bags filled with food closer to the volunteer tables.

Santa hat-wearing Logan Troop, age 3, handed boxes of elbow macaroni to other volunteers. His mom, Selena Troop, helped pack boxes with her 2-month-old daughter, Aria, hanging in front of her in an infant carrier.

As Devera Kazmerski of Columbia placed Frosted Flakes into the containers that slid past her station, she teared up while recalling deliveries she's helped make in past years of the food drive.

She remembered the families with kids who expressed gratitude that they'd only be able to provide their families with Christmas dinner and gifts because of the annual food-box delivery.

"This started out with just six to 10 people, and now the whole community comes out," Kazmerski said. "It just gives them a good feeling in their heart to help other people."

"It's nice to give back to the community" and to those less fortunate, said Penn Manor High School basketball player Ryan Atkinson, who was there to volunteer with about 14 of his teammates.

After helping pack boxes, Nikki Boyles and her children, Kiersten, 8, and Cassidy, 5, and family friend Jayden Dupler, 12, were back in the long volunteer line in front of the fire hall, waiting to be assigned another task.

"We're trying to show our girls that there are people that are less fortunate," Boyles said, and how they can help them.

Another volunteer suddenly handed her a list of names and addresses, and Boyles took her family out of line so she could pack her vehicle with boxes and start making deliveries.

There was a short break in the action so that Willis Herr of Herr's Fruit Farm — who, with his wife, Martha, donated copies of the New Testament to be put in all the boxes — could give a blessing to the proceedings over the loudspeaker.

Grateful for the gift

As the packing operation was winding down at the fire hall, deliveries were underway from Mount Joy to Bainbridge and from Columbia to the Lancaster suburbs.

At the nearby Wagon Werks in Columbia, an affordable-housing apartment overlooking the Susquehanna River, Quin Hartman and several young men from the Columbia High School basketball team maneuvered a shopping cart in and out of the small elevator to deliver food to three dozen apartments.

Hartman uses the van from his business, Fish Window Cleaning, to help make deliveries every year.

As she received a box of food and toys for her family, Victoria Pannell-Meekins wiped away tears as she said the donation "means everything to us."

She said she and her husband wouldn't be able to afford to give their two boys, 8 and 12, Christmas presents or a holiday dinner without the food drive.

"We wouldn't have a Christmas dinner without this," said another recipient, Melody Dougherty, who lives with her son and will now be able to invite her daughter over for a holiday meal.

"I'm on disability, so this means so much," said Flora Mitchell, who received her box as she was taking her little dog, Dallas, out for a walk. "It comes in really handy for the holidays. It's so wonderful. I'm so grateful."

"It's good that we're waking up people" to the need in the community, Hartman said, "especially the young (volunteers). Because they're the ones who will be running this someday, or maybe running a (food drive) like this elsewhere."

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