‘Christmas Express’ gets ready to roll

Hermiston High School students sort food donated to last year’s Christmas Express before it was picked up by the Hermiston Police Department for delivery to Agape House.

For more than four decades, needy families have received food and toys during the holiday season at the hands of volunteers and the Hermiston Police Department.

This month, the department will complete its 41st annual Christmas Express and put some joy into the holiday for 500 area families.

For the past seven years, the job of running the Express has fallen to Lt. Jason Edmiston, who took over the project when Sgt. Mike Marcum retired in 2004, but the program goes back much further.

The Hermiston Christmas Express began in 1969 when Dick Hodge, an insurance salesman, saw a need and approached then-Police Chief Bob Shannon with an idea to help disadvantaged families around the holidays.

“It started out with an ambulance and they went out to visit a few families who were less fortunate,” Edmiston said. “That evolved to an old school bus, then a caravan of cars. When I took over in 2004, we had 500 families and a caravan of 13 or 14 vehicles.”

Spread over three days, the deliveries required numerous volunteers and trucks to carry presents — every child in the family 11 and younger will receive a wrapped gift — and boxes of food, as well as one vehicle to carry empty boxes after goods were delivered. When families were not at home, the items were left by the front door.

“My first year, I fielded 57 phone complaints,” Edmiston said. “A lot of it was, “I got the food, but where are the presents?’”

Soon after, Edmiston began recommending changes to the program, including having a coordinated pick-up site and times instead of delivery and changing the way families were chosen for the program.

“It had evolved to the point where people were allowed to sign themselves up for toys and presents and we found a lot of people who only wanted the presents — the food wasn’t an issue for them,” Edmiston said. “We have a cap of 500 families, so in 2005, I requested we partner with different entities — faith-based organizations, the Department of Human Services, Agape House, Domestic Violence Services, the schools — to find the people who really need the help.”

Over the years, the program continued to partner with Agape House. This will be the third year the organization has designated warehouse space. Christmas Express volunteers collect canned and fresh food donations as well as an annual purchase of holiday food staples and store them at Agape House until they can be sorted.

The stock food — including 500 turkeys, 1,032 pounds of stuffing as well as hundreds of boxes of dry good staples like corn muffin mix and macaroni and cheese — is purchased each year. In October, Edmiston contacts local grocery stores and asks for a bid on the large order. This year, Fiesta Foods offered the lowest bid at a little over $10,000.

Local farmers and food processors donate potatoes, onions and frozen hashbrowns. Hermiston schools sponsor canned food drives to fill out the collection.

“Our program wouldn’t happen if we didn’t have the support of the schools,” Edmiston said. “You wouldn’t believe the number of canned foods the students bring in. The food that comes in from them puts us over the top. Our food boxes are probably 100 pounds.”

Other area businesses get involved as well. Some companies donate toys, area dentists donate toothbrushes and dental floss. Two large employers — the Hermiston Walmart Distribution Center and Union-Pacific Railroad’s Hinkle facility — will compete in a food drive.

“I was born and raised in this town. I grew up here, but it wasn’t until I got involved in this program that I saw the significant amount of giving that takes place in this community,” Edmiston said. “The amount of support that this community gives is just incredible. It’s businesses, farmers, schools. You call anyone and they’re all willing to give.”

Although most volunteer positions are already assigned, anyone interested in helping out during the first two full weeks of December can contact Edmiston at 541-667-5107. The group is especially looking for anyone bilingual to help make phone calls notifying families that they have been selected and when to pick-up their Christmas Express baskets.

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