By Curt Yeomans
Adrian Lamar, a kindergartner at Fountain Elementary School in Forest Park, sat on the floor in his classroom and looked up and down the roughly three-foot-tall cylinder that he had just unwrapped on Friday morning.
The cylinder contained toy cars, and it was a gift from the U.S. Army's First Army, which is stationed at nearby Fort Gillem. As Lamar, 5, took in the array of cars he would now be able to play with, he let out a gasp of disbelief.
"I got 135 cars," he said. "That's heavy!"
This was the seventh year soldiers from the First Army have brought Christmas presents to students at the school. As in the past, every student in the school received a gift from a soldier.
But, this may have also been the last time the soldiers deliver gifts to the school, as the First Army will begin moving from Fort Gillem to Rock Island, Ill., next year, said First Army Community Relations Coordinator Gayle Johnson.
The fort is slated for closure in 2011, upon the recommendation of the federal government's Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC).
Johnson said it is unclear whether enough members of the First Army will still be stationed at Fort Gillem a year from now to deliver gifts to students at the school then.
"The headquarters will be moving to Rock Island, and a lot of other people may have moved forward to Rock Island by next December as well, or they may have been sent somewhere else," Johnson said. "By that time, we'll probably have a skeleton crew remaining here.
"I'm not really ready to accept that this may be the last time we do this," she added. Johnson said the First Army has been one of Fountain Elementary School's Partners in Education since 1996.
"It's going to be a huge loss," Fountain Principal Tonya Mahone-Williams said. "They have been the most active Partner in Education this school has had. It's not just them delivering the presents at Christmas. They come to the school year round, and serve as mentors to the students. They read books to them. And while much is given, much is also returned.
"Our children will make care packages that will be sent to soldiers serving over seas. That's our way of taking something in, and giving something back," Mahone-Williams said.
The annual giving of presents to the students has been what Johnson called "a labor of love" to make sure all of the students receive at least one Christmas gift. According to the Georgia Department of Education's web site, 90 percent of students at Fountain Elementary School fell into the "economically disadvantaged" category during the 2008-2009 school year, the most recent year for which data is available.
The first two years the soldiers delivered presents to the school, only kindergartners and first-graders received gifts, Johnson said. "We saw a need here at the school," she said. "Early on, we were only giving gifts to the kindergartners and first-graders, but then, in the third year, we decided everyone should be included, and that's when we started giving presents to all of the students."
Several soldiers said this is an event they enjoy being involved in. "It is the best way I can think of to give back to the community," said Sgt. Maj. Dennis Paxton. "Seeing the looks on the kids' faces, it just can't compare to anything else ... It validates what we do out here. It says we're doing the right stuff."
As soldiers handed out the presents, many students got wide-eyed, and big grins came across their faces as they waited to be called to the front of the classroom to receive a gift. As students in one kindergarten class were handed a gift, they showed their appreciation by hugging the soldiers.
"To see the smiles on some of these kids' faces is priceless," said Sgt. Maj. Shawn Doucette.
Kindergartner, Arlene Velazquez, 5, said she was happy the soldiers came to the school. She received a "pretty" doll that "looks like me," and sings. "It was a surprise, a pleasant surprise," she said.
After giving out presents to a classroom full of students, Staff Sgt. Yurika Miller walked down a hallway at the school, and proclaimed, "I could do this all day."
Sgt. 1st Class Calvin Luckett said he grew up in an economically disadvantaged home, and understands where many Fountain students come from. "I didn't get to enjoy Christmas when I was a kid," Luckett said.
"If I can make a kid not feel like I did when I was their age, then I'd do it every day."