ABC News(PANAMA CITY, Fla.) — A Florida community that was devastated by Hurricane Michael was surprised Tuesday with $50,000 worth of donated toys to distribute to local kids for Christmas.
“You just all made our Christmas special,” said Mike Jones, known as “Salvage Santa” in his Panama City community. “It’s going to benefit our community so much, in other ways you don’t know about. It’s going to bring things here that we need.”
“Merry Christmas,” Jones added, choking back tears.
The toy donation, made by “Good Morning America” sponsor SAP, came just as Panama City is trying to rebuild from Michael, the most powerful storm to hit the Florida Panhandle, that tore through Panama City in October, destroying nearly everything in its way.
One local mom’s Facebook post, lamenting how ill-prepared the community was for Christmas, went viral this month, capturing the mood of the community ahead of the holidays.
“There’s nothing left intact. Nothing,” she wrote. “We lost 20,000-plus homes. We have people in tents … My kids need to see that Santa still came even though their chimneys are gone.”
Jones is known in Panama City as “Salvage Santa” because for the past 39 years he has saved Christmas for local children by restoring old and broken toys and gifting them to kids in need. This year, he stepped up his efforts in the wake of Hurricane Michael with an event named “Salvage Christmas.”
Even before Tuesday’s $50,000 surprise donation, Jones had already collected around 900 bicycles and more than 10,000 toys for local children, storing them in a local church.
“Even though we’re in a building right now that doesn’t have a ceiling in it right above me, and the carpets all wet and torn out … look at the toys in here on the shelves,” Jones said. “The parents they come here, they get the spirit when they get to shop, there’s no cash register here, everything that you see in this room behind me is free.”
He continued, “They get to pick out what they want for their kids and go out the door and that raises their spirits, their morale. There are so many kids that wouldn’t get Christmas if we didn’t do this.”
Everyone in the community is involved, including 9-year-old Lyra Floore, who sold $700 worth of handmade ornaments and donated all of it to “Salvage Christmas.”
“The Christmas wish that I hope for this year is that everyone gets the presents that they need,” Lyra told “GMA.”
Ilea Faircloth, the principal of Springfield Elementary School, one of the local schools destroyed in the storm, told “GMA” that the community still looks like a “war zone.”
“When you walk around our neighborhoods and when you drive down our streets, it looks like a war zone,” Faircloth said. “And it just sucks the happy out of everything.”
Faircloth added that her dream is for the community to be able to come together on Christmas and to be able to forget about the storm.
“I hope that the kids wake up … on Christmas morning and just are happy,” Faircloth said. “And just forget that there was ever a hurricane even if it’s just for a few minutes.”
SAP, the “GMA” sponsor that made the $50,000 donation, said Jones and the entire community of Panama City deserve the help.
“He deserves it and the community deserves it,” said Alicia Tillman, chief marketing officer for SAP. “This is a community that was devastated by Hurricane Michael and without communities we have no prosperity and we have no innovation, which is core to SAP.”
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