Christmas comes early for hundred-plus kids

From left, Mechelle Forney and Angela Knight draw the winning ticket as Betty Cox holds up a framed spiritual message that was won by Bonita McCants.

Christmas came two days early for more than 100 local and area children.

The youngsters, ranging in age from toddler to early-teen, and about 65 parents or guardians were the guests of a local Christian ministry at a special holiday party. The celebration took place at Grace Fellowship Church and included dinner, a wide selection of desserts and more. Much more.

Each child received a selection of age-appropriate toys, and dozens of door prizes — including a 32-inch television and 10 bicycles — were handed out by Betty Cox, founder and administrator of Change of Mind, and Mechelle Forney.

Shawnton Riley, a sixth-grader at Atmore Christian School who took home the TV, was at a loss for words but finally admitted that his new possession was “awesome.”

His sister Tamedren, who was his chaperone, also brought her two children, 7-year-old Destiny, and Bryson, who is 1.

“This is my first time experiencing this,” she said. “I’m glad my kids are able to experience it, and I’m glad to see Atmore have something like this. To have somebody outside the family take time and think about the kids of our next generation is great.”

Marie Hartley and her children traveled from Pensacola for the party.

“We are having a great time,” she said. “These kids have got a lot of energy, and there’s plenty for them to do to maybe burn off some of that energy.”

Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus were among the special guests, but they weren’t the only ones in costume. Children hugged, cavorted with and had their photos made with children’s favorites Hello Kitty, Marshall and Skye from Paw Patrol, Minnie Mouse and Doc McStuffins.

Cox, who also supervises the city’s emergency dispatchers, also used the event as an expression of appreciation to one of her ministry’s biggest supporters. Former Atmore Police Chief Danny McKinley and his wife Kathy were presented a plaque in honor of their generosity.

McKinley said after the presentation that he went to high school with Cox but “did not know her all that well” until much later, when she was a clerk at the local B.C. Moore store, where a shoplifting had taken place.

“When we (police) got there, she was chasing the suspect across the parking lot,” he recalled. “She was full of spunk, so I hired her and she’s been there ever since.”

He said the relationship he and Cox established, plus the fact he believed in the work his former schoolmate is doing, are what led him to funnel part of his Christian giving to her ministry for the past several years.

“When I was working at the (Alabama) Attorney General’s Office, Miss Betty came to me and asked if I knew of any grants she might be able to get,” he said. “I couldn’t, but when I retired from there, I went into sales and I’ve tithed my commission checks to Change of Mind. Fortunately, this year I was top salesman in the company. It’s just our way of doing what God told us to do.”

The quiet-spoken ministry director agreed that the event turned out as well as she had hoped it would but refused to take any of the credit for the success. She thanked the volunteers who worked tirelessly, but she saved the biggest praise for the spiritual help she and the ministry have received.

“I didn’t do it; we didn’t do it, God did it,” she said.

Shawnton Riley was the winner of a 32-inch television.