CHIPLEY -- An anonymous giver has shaped the season for several Washington County students.
The $15,000 anonymous donation, which came from a Washington County resident, was evenly allocated across all six schools in the school district. Many schools, after clearing student lunch debt, further distributed the remaining $2,500 in donated funds in creative ways to students identified as being in need.
"It's just a Christmas-wonderful thing," Washington County School Superintendent Joseph Taylor said Friday afternoon.
Seventeen Vernon High School students were allocated roughly $150 each, with the stipulation that $100 of it be spent on clothing, toiletry items, linens, school supplies or gifts for family members. The students shopped for items at Wal-Mart on State Road 77 in Chipley on Friday morning.
With household essentials in mind, Vernon High sophomore Leigh Vaught, 16, capitalized off of the moment, aiming to alleviate pressure off of her parents.
"I almost cried because we just moved down here a year ago because my dad lost his job; so, we've been kind of skimming-it for a little while," she said. "So to be able to get this," referring to all that was in her basket, "is -- it's fantastic."
And as the eldest of six siblings, Vaught packed her cart with long-sleeved clothing and stuffed toys for the younger ones, and some essentials for herself.
"To be able to get a bedspread for my bed, to be able to get winter clothes -- I haven't bought new clothes for myself in almost a year and 90-percent of my clothes are hand-me-downs, so, to be able to get new stuff is nice," she said.
Other schools decided to distribute the funds in other ways.
Roulhac Middle School identified 25 students to allocate the remaining funds to purchase presents for them and their families, school officials said. Also, the school will purchase warm clothing for any student who are in need of them.
"As of Thursday, everyone had a zero balance" on lunch accounts, said Principal Lesa Burdeshaw at Kate M. Smith Elementary. "That was about $700 and then we finished up our Angel Christmas and that was about $650."
Besides clearing accounts and buying gifts for students in need, the school will use the remaining funds to purchase winter clothing, she said.
Chipley High School cleared lunch accounts and is organizing a committee to determine how the rest of the funds are spent, school officials said. And Vernon Elementary School purchased gift cards to allocate the funds evenly across an identified group of students, school officials said.
"We just are awed by the generosity of our community in many ways," said Vernon Middle School Principal Kimberly Register, noting the school has purchased holiday meals for an identified group of students. "And we are going shopping -- our AVID students and staff -- we have identified about 20-25 students, we will be definitely shopping for them for the holiday season so that they can have a Christmas that all kids deserve."
It was an emotional scene in the retailer that morning. Hands fondling toys, cackles and giggles filling the air, and the smiles of visibly exhilarated students demonstrated the untroubled and carefree attitudes children -- even teenagers -- should be in the position to normally display.
"To me, when you look at their baskets, it reflects what 'that need' was and what these kids are all about," said Vernon High School Principal Brian Riviere. "This is my tenth year in Washington County and we have not had a donation like this since I've been here. It's truly selfless and heartfelt."
Moments after personally picking items off of Wal-Mart shelves and racks Friday morning, Timothy York appeared nearly shell-shocked at the unexpected gift.
"This is the first time I've been able to buy clothes in I-don't-know-how-long," said York, a Vernon High student.
"There really wasn't a whole lot of want, most of this is need," he had said.
His cart reflected those needs: thick black socks, boots, shirts and oil for his '91 Chevrolet Pickup.
"Because," he noted with a diminished countenance, "I lost my mom about a year ago and since then, everything has been kind of down hill -- a lot."
His chuckle following that statement was not one caused by humor. It was obvious it was the one people do when they laugh to keep from crying -- as a child, having lost his mother Catherine York on Jan. 5 this year.
And, as the eldest of three, he knew any extra money should be passed along to his younger siblings so that they would have a good Christmas. Yet, the 16-year-old Vernon student and woodwind player showed great strength, resilience and gratitude.
"I have two other siblings, but me being the oldest one, my dad pretty much ... we sat down and talked, they were going to get the Christmas and I was going to 'go with it,'" he said, voice cracking, and, with the next statement, trailing off, "Here it is, right here."