- Associated Press - Thursday, November 5, 2015

COLUMBUS, Ind. (AP) - Like many other 9-year-olds, Chris Owens assumed the Christmas gifts he received in 1986 came from the North Pole. His perceptions changed a few years later while still an adolescent as he learned more about Christmas giving and receiving.

But it wasn’t until a few years ago that Owens, now a Columbus firefighter in his 30s, discovered all of his youthful assumptions about Christmas gifts were wrong during an eye-opening revelation that changed his life.

Owens said he was giving his mother, Virginia, and his young great-nephew a tour of the warehouse in the Doug Otto United Way Center that now serves as headquarters for the Columbus Firemen’s Cheer Fund.

It quickly became evident to Owens that his mother knew a lot about the Cheer Fund. After pressuring her to explain, the revelation was unveiled, he said.

He learned that his parents, Jerry and Virginia Owens, were financially struggling in the late 1980s after his father was laid off from his job.

While the couple were able to provide their six children with food and essentials, Virginia Owens told him buying Christmas presents that year was not within their budget, Chris Owens said.

As Chris Owens’ oldest brother was socializing with a few firefighter friends, the brother mentioned his family’s financial crisis - as well as the fact that his parents were too proud to seek help.

Although the family didn’t request assistance, Virginia Owens said, Cheer Fund leaders that year made sure there were presents for all six Owens children under the family’s Christmas tree, according to her son.

“I never had any idea that had happened,” the firefighter said. “I guess Mom and Dad felt we didn’t need to know.”

After discovering the truth, Owens became one of the hardest-working volunteers for the charity, 2014 campaign chairman Bryan Bailey said last year.

That’s how a four-year firefighter such as Owens, along with Jay Smith and Jarrod Mullis, became the co-chairmen of this year’s campaign, Bailey said.

“It’s amazing how things can come around that allow you to pay it forward,” Owens said.

The new Cheer Fund chairmen have had their hands full learning how to effectively lead the organization and meet what is likely to be a substantial demand from low-income families, both Owens and Mullis said.

Last year, the Cheer Fund delivered toys, books and other items to 1,503 children. While that number doesn’t break records, it was the most children receiving assistance in more than five years.

“Our numbers at this time are consistent with where we were last year,” Mullis said.

With the recent news of pending layoffs at Cummins Inc., the three chairmen are also concerned nervous contributors might cut back on holiday giving this year, Mullis said.

Now that Halloween is over, Cheer Fund organizers have scheduled three fundraising events this weekend.

Chili Cook-off: 5 to 9?p.m. Friday at FairOaks Mall.

Kamp Out for Kids: Radio personality Kelsey James will take donations outside Fire Station 1 at 11th and Washington streets from noon Friday until noon Saturday.

Hoosier Pro Wrestling Cheer Fund Show: Bell time in the Family Arts Building at the 4-H Fairgrounds is 7:45?p.m. Saturday.

Deliveries are scheduled to be made Dec. 12, about two weeks before Christmas. That date allows what Mullis calls “buffer room” to get toys to families who weren’t home on the delivery date.

Last year, that buffer was also useful in serving 77 additional children who had been scheduled to receive assistance from another organization that was unable to raise sufficient donations.

Cheer Fund space

With a new generation of leaders now in charge of Bartholomew County’s oldest active charity, the public shouldn’t be surprised to see the 85-year-old Cheer Fund moving in new directions in upcoming years, according to both Owens and Mullis.

One of the first new directions that might need to be addressed is consideration of a new Cheer Fund headquarters.

While the current United Way warehouse serves the charity’s needs well, other nonprofits have inquired about getting initial space or additional square footage in the building at 1531 13th Street, Owens said.

There is also a strong desire within the Cheer Fund organization to expand its services year-round to underprivileged children in the Columbus area.

“We want to hope to branch out and be visible more year round,” Owens said.

“We’ll still help kids at Christmastime, but we’d also like to help them with school, such as providing nutritious food all year,” Mullis said.

Efforts will also be made in the coming years to find partners both inside and outside Bartholomew County to help the Cheer Fund obtain electronics, video games and computers that older children desire. Most of these items cost more than $100 new, and that’s simply out of the Cheer Fund’s budget.

“These days, kids aren’t going to invite their friends over to play ‘Battleship’ or whatever board game they get,” said Mullis, who says familiarity with digital, computerized devices is becoming a necessity for today’s children.

It’s not a matter of being ungrateful for what they get, Owens said. It’s more a feeling of inferiority to classmates that have Xboxes, smartphones and tablets, he said.

It’s the same reason why some schools have uniforms, in order to not stigmatize kids who can’t afford name-brand or designer clothes.

“It’s all those things about keeping up with the Joneses that are ingrained in all of us,” Owens said.

While buying new electronics likely will remain out of the question for now, Cheer Fund representatives have met with a Cincinnati businessman who is attempting to help charities acquire quality, secondhand electronics for distribution to older children, Mullis said.

Such surprises are bound to also be appreciated come Christmas morning.

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Source: The (Columbus) Republic, https://bit.ly/1SpodJU

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Information from: The Republic, https://www.therepublic.com/

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