He’d rolled into Maggie Valley with three tractor-trailer loads of merchandise — with an estimated value of $350,000 — to pass out to hundreds of needy families in Haywood County. The unparalleled Christmas giveaway had been months in the making, but now game time was here.
Towering pallets of unopened boxes, column after column of them, were queued up waiting to be unpacked, sorted and sifted through. A din of voices ricocheted across rows of tables as volunteers wrestled the colossal mountain of toys and clothes into submission.
“Where’s the size 7 boys?”
“Is there a table for movies yet?”
“Will they be able to get through down here?”
Space was already at a premium inside the Maggie Valley Pavilion, the staging site for the charity event. The stream of boxes coming off the trucks bulged out of the entry bays, overflowing into tents as quickly as the volunteers could erect them in the steady drizzle.
But Strickland, with coffee in hand, calmly cruised the chaos, unrattled by the countdown to his charity giveaway.
“I do this year-round,” said Strickland, who lives in Florida. “We come into town and we don’t ask for a penny. We do it because the Lord has told us to do it.”
Strickland and his friend and fellow charity organizer, Ron Miller, have been called by the Bible’s teachings of generosity.
“’I was hungry and you fed me … I was naked and you clothed me,’” Miller said, quoting the Gospel of Matthew. “It is my core value to minister to others like Jesus ministered to us.”
But their 21st-century version of biblical altruism comes in the form of big rigs bearing shipments of Star Wars toys and Disney DVDs.
So where did it all come from?
“It’s hard for us to explain how we procure it all,” Strickland said.
The simple version is Strickland and Miller get corporations to donate their left-over and over-stocked merchandise, amassing it bit by bit over the course of the year.
“In the corporate world, you just get to know the right people to make it happen,” Strickland said.
Miller, who lives in Mississippi, owns a company that makes protective clothing for the medical and dental industries.
Strickland is retired, twice — once from Coca-Cola and once as a pastor — and now devotes his life to his non-profit charity, Network of Promise.
“The Lord has been good to me. I’ve made all the money I need,” Strickland said.
The windfall of goodwill landed on the doorstep of Haywood County thanks to a serendipitous twist of fate.
Strickland was on a motorcycle trip to Maggie Valley in August when his plans to do a Christmas charity event in Tennessee began to unravel.
He was staying at Smoky View Cottages, owned by Terri Crider, who knew Strickland from his previous bike trips to the valley. Crider happened to be nearby when Strickland fielded a phone call from the local liaison for the Tennessee charity event. He got off the phone shaking his head, and Crider asked what was wrong.
“I was standing in the right place at the right time. I said, ‘Why not do it in Maggie? We got a lot of poor people here, we got a lot of needy people here,’” Crider recalled. “He said ‘Could you get me 1,000 needy people?’ and I said, ‘Sure.’”
Strickland called Miller and pitched the venue change.
“I said, ‘Pray about this. Let’s do a toy and food giveaway in Maggie,’” Strickland said.
They instantly decided to do “Christmas in the Valley,” a name that ended up sticking.
Crider corralled a team to lay the groundwork locally for such a massive gift-giving operation. They would need dozens of volunteers, a staging and pick-up site, and a way to get the word out to those most in need.
The town of Maggie Valley offered the use of the Maggie Valley Community Pavilion. The Mechanized Cavalry of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans — a network of biker friends Strickland belonged to — provided a stable of volunteers for the staging and set-up, along with local veterans’ groups, churches, schoolteachers, and others.
As for alerting needy families?
The school system, along with the department of social services, partnered to identify families and send invitations home in kids’ book bags.
The event went off successfully, with more than 800 families leaving with boxes of food, blankets, clothes and Christmas gifts during Saturday’s event.
“If you can imagine the parents’ joy and the child’s joy, it makes it all worth it,” Miller said. “It is unbelievable.”