The Salvation Army, which serves nearly 400,000 people annually in Western Washington, held a toy-distribution event last week that taught a lesson to givers, receivers and volunteers.

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On this Christmas morning, you might want to think about this: One of your neighbors gave a doll to a child she’d never met. Another gave a blankie; one more gave a truck; still another gave a watch.

What about you?

“We get so wrapped up,” said Salvation Army Maj. Kathy Sargent, “we forget how simple it really is.” Simple, she says, and rewarding.

Sargent believes she has gotten the biggest reward of all. For years, she’s been in charge of the agency’s largest toy-distribution event in the region, a program so big it’s held at CenturyLink Field Event Center.

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On Wednesday, Sargent’s operation served about 1,500 families, mostly from White Center and South and Central Seattle. In all, The Salvation Army provided toys to some 12,000 King County children, and grocery gift cards to 4,800 families, so they, too, could have Christmas.

The holiday toy program is just one of the services provided each year by The Salvation Army, a charity supported by The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy.

Sargent, who is retiring this year, said the toy program is special.

“Through this program, I believe The Salvation Army shows people the real meaning of Christmas,” she said. “It’s not so much the gift but the giving. In giving to others, lives are touched, families are blessed.”

The toys are donated by local businesses, by national chains and by individuals, in lots large and small. A downtown business donated 10 gifts. A law firm gave 20. Bartell Drugs shoppers gave by the barrelful, some 5,000 toys in all.

At CenturyLink, a brass band played Christmas songs all day as moms and dads streamed in to choose gifts.

Sargent believes goodwill is passed in a circle, giver to receiver, receiver to giver. Volunteers often thank Sargent.

Many come from businesses, such as Amazon and Starbucks, or churches. But at CenturyLink, a few children helped, too.

Katherine Bitter celebrated her 11th birthday by volunteering.

“I think of how lucky I am,” she said. Other kids, they get caught up in things. Video games. Themselves. “They don’t think so much about how they can help.”

Families qualify to receive the gifts based on income.

Volunteer Tayler Selman, a high-school junior, was amazed: “I didn’t realize how many people couldn’t afford presents.”

At Wednesday’s event, one mom said she wound up in a Salvation Army shelter after suffering a domestic-violence attack. Another said her health failed and life fell apart. Still others said they had become homeless. Or just plain jobless.

Coming to pick out presents for his two children, Mark Baldwin, of West Seattle, was overwhelmed.

“You don’t know how much this means to us,” he said, starting to choke up. His fiancée, Corrina Harper, chose a gift card for their teenager and a doctor set for their 3-year-old.

“He’s been taking care of dad,” using pencils to give Baldwin a pretend shot, she said. This Christmas morning, the boy will have a stethoscope.

Some years, there are plenty of gifts and each child can get two. Wednesday, there weren’t quite enough for that.

Wyma Hodges, who said she is homeless, stopped to look around. “Everybody is smiling,” she said. “They’re patient. Nobody’s hollering, nobody’s shoving. Nobody’s cold.”

The stresses of her life, for a moment, melted away.

“There’s so much joy,” she said.

Those smiles, they got Latasha Raines to thinking, as well. About the typical way Christmas shopping is done, with the mad rush to the mall, the lines, the agonizing. A black iPod or a silver? A Nintendo or a Wii? And what to get for the dog?

“You kind of lose the purpose behind it all,” she said. “You’re so focused on the stuff, you forget about the people.”

Not this year. Not Raines. She was at CenturyLink as a volunteer, helping parents select gifts for their children. But a few years ago, as a single mom, she was on the receiving end.

“It’s an honor for me to be here,” she said. She started to tear up, too.

Before learning of the program, Ana Montoya believed she should prepare her three children for disappointment on Christmas. The littlest, age 8, wasn’t so happy.

“I told them, sometimes Santa gives to the kids who have nothing,” she explained. “I said, you have your brother and sister. You have parents. We have us.” He understood.

Leaving with donated gifts for all three, she felt blessed. Today, the 8-year-old will be playing with a toy car.

At other Salvation Army toy-distribution locations, parents had similar experiences.

Paula Carpenter, who receives services in Renton, has been touched deeply by the agency.

“It’s mind-blowing, the love and generosity of this organization,” she said.

Several years ago, when times were better, Carpenter remembers buying her oldest daughter a whole bunch of gifts.

“She’d open one and throw it to the side,” Carpenter recalled. ” ‘What’s next? What’s next?’ ” It’s how a lot of children celebrate Christmas, of course. But to Carpenter, it didn’t seem right.

For the past few years, money has been tight, and at points the family has been close to homeless, she said. Today, her husband has a job for a small company he loves, but they struggle to support four children.

Loss can be rough, especially on kids. But through this whole experience, Carpenter and her husband have watched as the children adapted — and grew.

“When we started struggling, she was so amazing,” Carpenter said of her oldest. “It’s taught her to be more appreciative and grateful and not expectant.”

The Army’s Sargent said there are lessons for us all.

“We can all do something, whether it’s dropping a quarter in the kettle, volunteering your time, buying a gift,” she said. “We can’t live by the fact that somebody else will do it.”

News researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.

Maureen O’Hagan: 206-464-2562,

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