Even though she grew up in a big family, Kristi Arrington knew what it felt like to not fit in. Her father was a career Air Force man, and they moved every time he got new orders. “Because you move around a lot, you have to get good at making friends and starting over. It’s traumatizing,” Kristi said, “but it teaches you to be very adaptable.” In those situations where things felt out of her control, Kristi adapted by becoming dependable and reliable. “I’m the person you can count on. If I say I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it. Whatever it takes, I’m going to get it done.”
So when the opportunity arose to help organize a Christmas toy drive for foster children, Kristi quickly stepped up to the challenge. It started when her husband Larry and his friend Danny decided to collect toys at work. They wanted to help the children that might be missed by big, well-publicized and well-funded organizations like Toys for Tots. When Danny realized his kids were practicing soccer right behind the Texas Baptist Home (TBH) for Children, he went to talk to them, and so the partnership began. The first year, by asking friends and colleagues to give, they collected enough gifts to fill a big box. The next year they filled two boxes. The following year they got some corporate sponsorships and were able to fill a Suburban. Then a Suburban and a pickup truck. For the last couple of years, they filled a trailer.
After two successful drives, they decided to ask TBH for specific lists from the children who lived there. It was then that they discovered that most of the residents were teens who were stuck in the system, some because they were deemed too old for placement, and some because their legal guardians were unwilling to relinquish their rights. “We don’t know their backgrounds,” Kristi explained. “Obviously, they’re coming out of a place that’s not good for them. Obviously, it’s not their fault. What did they do? The adults in their life obviously can’t get it together.” Babies and small children are relatively easier to place, but foster families rarely ask for teens or multiples. “Think about what goes into toy drive bins,” Kristi said. “Nothing goes into the bins for 13, 14, 15, 16 year olds. In general, those kids just get overlooked at Christmas.”
The older kids don’t need toys as much as they need shoes, coats, bedding, books, music and games, so they stopped calling it a toy drive, and started calling it a gift drive. “We decided everyone needs a Christmas stocking, so we do stockings for them too,” Kristi said. “One year they specifically asked me, ‘Kristi, Can you take this house? This house has teenage boys and they are the hardest to shop for.’” Kristi thought about shopping for her father, three brothers, husband and son and said, “I’m in. I have boys. I’m good for that.”
“One year we had a new girl come in; a girl who wouldn’t provide a list,” Kristi recalled. “This girl was 15, and the other girls in the house had to help her make a list because she had never made a Christmas list. At 15, you have never made a Christmas list?! You never wrote a letter to Santa? I just couldn’t understand that. It was more than my mind could really take in. I made it my mission to get everything on her list; every single thing she asked for.”
In 2018, TBH told Kristi that the Texas laws had changed, and as a result there would be 36 kids providing lists. “Larry, Danny and I put our heads together and said, ‘What do we do? We’ve only been doing half this amount. How do you say, “We’re only going to help these kids, but not those other kids?’ We couldn’t. We took them all.” They reasoned, “God has given them to us, and He’s going to make this happen. We watched God work, and it all got covered.”
When Kristi first gets the lists from TBH, she says, “It’s panicky and it’s fun. I believe if they asked for it, we need to get it. These kids are not in a good situation, and these kids need to get everything on their Christmas list.” It’s panicky because sometimes the requested items are big, expensive or hard to find, and they wonder if they will have enough money and time to get everything on the lists. One year, one of the boys, a huge Seattle Seahawks fan, wanted a jersey and a jacket. He got them–and socks and a beanie too. One year a boy who was ready to age out of the system asked for pots and pans so he could set up a kitchen in his new home. “He got a sled load of pots, pans, dishes, silverware…” Kristi recalled. “One donor said, ‘All boys eat pizza, he needs pizza trays!’ so he got pizza trays too.”
It was panicky in 2020, when Kristi’s employer, Freeman Trade Company, had to cancel their shows. In previous years they had sponsored 10-12 children. Weatherguard Roofing had been giving Cowboy tickets and parking passes that were raffled for money to buy gifts. “We were so concerned. How is this going to work with covid? Everybody is in lockdown. People aren’t working. People aren’t getting out. How are we going to handle 38 kids?” Kristi wondered. Then she observed, “God just puts you in the right place sometimes. We were at my brother-in-law’s house right before Christmas. My sister-in-law’s daughter came in, and we were talking about the drive. She said, ‘We normally participate in a toy drive, but they’re not doing it this year.’ They picked up eight of our kids,” Kristi said. “Someone you work with knows somebody who wants to give. They tell us, ‘These people want to participate, you might call them.’ We watched God put other people in place to fill that void, and we gave to 38 kids last year.”
“A lot of times, the fun part is at the end. If we have extra money, we can buy extra stuff,” Kristi said. “You can walk down every toy aisle and buy whatever you want. One year we got a 3’ dinosaur and a 3’ Batman. I told Larry, ‘I hope both of these toys end up in the same house, so Batman can fight the dinosaur!’ We also got voice-changing Batman masks.” She recalled how they were standing in the middle of the toy aisle at Walmart, with masks to their faces telling each other “I’m Batman,” while strangers looked on and laughed. “That’s the fun part, testing out the toys and seeing how they work.” Having extra toys on hand is important because, “the kids never stop coming. Kids will still be coming after we drop off our stuff. They can go to the stockpile and pull stuff for those kids. That’s the most fun: being able to give those kids everything on their list.”
TBH usually provides the children’s wish lists to Kristi the first week in November, which gives Kristi and her crew one month to shop, wrap and deliver the gifts by the first week of December.
People who want to help can contact Krisit by phone or email, and she will give them suggestions, specific gift assignments, or instructions about donating cash or other needed items. “Gift cards are great. They want to go out to eat, or go to the movies. We’ll take anything, we’re not picky. It’s great being able to give those kids something, to make sure when they get up on Christmas morning they’ll have a pile of stuff just for them under the tree.”
“Sometimes the parents in the foster houses will have the kids write thank you notes, which are super nice, but they will make you bawl like a baby,” Kristi said. “The first ones I got were sent to me at work. I read them Monday morning, and I’m bawling like a baby. I was calling the rest of the girls to come read these notes so they could cry with me, because I’m not crying alone. That’s not happening.”
“People need to realize how many of these kids there really are, and they’re right in our own backyard. When you pick up your kids from school, and you see them all coming out, I promise you there’s a handful of kids in the foster system. You don’t know who they are.” Kristi said. “I hope that someday they don’t need us. I love to help, but I want them to call and say, ‘We don’t need your help because we don’t have kids that need your help.’ That’s what I want to happen.”