WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — It's difficult to imagine that Santa's workshop is any busier this time of year than The Greenbrier was on Monday — distribution day for the fifth annual Dream Tree for Kids holiday gift drive.

The brainchild of the resort's owner, Jim Justice, the Dream Tree campaign finds a way to give a million dollars' worth of toys to children who might otherwise not receive a gift on Christmas morning.

"If you're me, you've got to come up with a good idea every now and then," Justice told The Register-Herald as the toy distribution got into full swing Monday morning. "This just seemed really special to me."

He explained how he came up with such a grandiose plan.

"The idea came up about five years ago to have a toy store here," he said. "I talked to (Greenbrier curator of design) Carleton Varney, and he drew up ideas for the store. Finally, I said, 'I know what we need to do. We'll give away $1 million of toys every year, all of them gift-wrapped.'"

Over the past five years, Dream Tree for Kids has distributed nearly 200,000 presents through hundreds of nonprofit organizations from all across the country. Close to 30,000 gifts were loaded up into vehicles of all kinds Monday for distribution by 115 nonprofits in six states — West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina and Kentucky.

"The demand is overwhelming," Justice said. "We had 71,000 requests this year. We're not able to keep up with all the demand. Santa's elves are wearing out from the work it takes," he added with a grin at Ashley Hamilton, the resort's director of special events who also heads up the Dream Tree gift drive.

Hamilton said the toy buyer at The Greenbrier's children's paradise, Fizzy's Land of Oz, begins sourcing gift possibilities in February, looking for small, lightweight items that don't require batteries. Perennially rising to the top of the list are such items as games and educational toys — playthings with a purpose that can be enjoyed over and over, not just used up and tossed aside.

Kevin Workman, the resort's chief operating officer, who is also involved in coordinating the Dream Tree campaign, said he and Hamilton "certainly share Mr. Justice's passion for youth." Workman added, "He's a very generous man. It's rewarding to be involved in something this massive to help children."

Acknowledging that the gift drive is a challenging event to pull off in the already busy month of December, Workman said much of the planning and coordinating work falls to Hamilton. "It takes up a lot of Ashley's December," he said. "But this is the essence of Christmas."

He'll get no argument from the campaign's founder.

"It's the most important holiday of all of our lives; it's a celebration of Jesus' birth," Justice said. "And a lot of kids are struggling to celebrate anything. At least we're able to give them a little bit of joy, a little bit of hope — show them that somebody out there loves them. That's our goal.

"I never sought fanfare or anything; that's not what it's about. At the end of the rainbow, the giver is the one who always wins. I hope the ones we're able to touch are filled with joy."

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As Monday morning continued, a seemingly endless procession of resort employees and volunteers wheeled chest-high plastic and canvas-sided carts piled high with gifts through the hotel's upper lobby. For most of the cart jockeys, the point of origin was The Greenbrier's stately Colonial Hall ballroom, which had been transformed from its usual elegant purpose into a staging area filled with orderly stacks of wrapped packages destined for one of the waiting vehicles in a temporary loading zone just to the side of the hotel's front portico.

Around 1,300 of those packages went to a box truck manned by personnel and volunteers from Roane County Schools, including a pair of weary maintenance men who had been on the road since 5 a.m., bringing the vehicle on the three-hour trek to Greenbrier County.

"Almost 80 percent of our county's students are at or below the poverty level," said Marilyn Taylor, a Save the Children reading specialist in the Roane system for the past 27 years. "Getting these gifts means that many of our children who will probably only get one gift at home this year will get another one at school. It's a terrific program."

Roane County has five K-8 schools, all of which will benefit from the Dream Tree for Kids campaign, Taylor said. She noted that many of the system's instructors will incorporate the gifts into academic lesson plans, providing a dual benefit for their students.

Volunteering alongside Taylor on Monday morning was Spencer Elementary School eighth-grader John Cole. The 14-year-old's mother teaches at his school and "volunteered him" to help load the truck, Taylor said.

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In addition to his resort holdings, Justice also is heavily invested in the coal and agriculture industries, coaches both the boys and girls basketball teams at Greenbrier East High School and is running for the Democratic Party's nomination for governor.

Little wonder then that, when asked if he feels removed from the best part of the gift-giving experience — seeing the children's faces when they open their presents — he pointed out that he also has the privilege of acting the role of Santa Claus at the resort's tree-lighting ceremony and, for the past 15 years or so, he has played Santa at a community gathering in a little church in Crumpler (population 204).

"I fly in in a helicopter and sit down with some of the neediest and most deserving — yet most stricken — kids in our area," Justice described his annual visits to the tiny McDowell County community. "In many ways, it's sad and hard to do because of that; these are kids without moms and dads, living in a tough area of our state."

He paused, then answered the original question. "I get to see their faces," he said, with a grim nod. "I surely do get to see the kids."

— Email: talvey@register-herald.com

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