Angel Tree Distribution

Salvation Army locations have different processes, but end result is same joy


There are no elves making toys at a Salvation Army Angel Tree warehouse, but there are plenty of them helping to distribute toys and other gifts to low-income families every Christmas season. Once the gifts have been sorted at the warehouses, there’s a distribution day or days within about a week of Christmas for the families to come and gather their presents.


A Salvation Army worker in Chattanooga waits to deliver an Angel Tree family's cart full of Christmas gifts to their car.

A Salvation Army worker in Chattanooga waits to deliver an Angel Tree family’s cart full of Christmas gifts to their car.

This distribution time generally features the largest number of volunteers for The Salvation Army. Those who come include families, offices, retirees, students, sports teams, church groups and The Salvation Army’s advisory board.


“It’s a good mixture of the population who comes out to volunteer,” said Chattanooga Director of Marketing and Development Kimberly George. “It’s probably the event where we see the greatest diversity of folks who come out to assist us.”

“We have more requests to be there on distribution day than we do on other days because it’s such a happy occasion,” added Salvation Army Mission Specialist Eddie Ekhart of Maryville, TN.


These volunteers help with everything from checking in parents as they arrive to loading the bags of gifts into their cars. There are volunteers who help direct parking and volunteers who help read devotions or the Christmas story to each new group of people entering.


Distribution works by dividing the time into increments (usually 15 minutes, sometimes 30) and assisting a certain number of families each one. The number of families served each increment depends on the size of the city; in smaller cities, where distribution can be done in just a few hours, 10-20 families are served every 15 minutes, but in large cities, where distribution runs two or three days, they help 75 families or more each increment.


A Chattanooga Angel Tree recipient loads her child's bike into her car. Bikes are popular Angel Tree requests, and in Chattanooga, The Salvation Army provides 800-900 a year for Angel Tree children.

A Chattanooga Angel Tree recipient loads her child’s bike into her car. Bikes are popular Angel Tree requests, and in Chattanooga, The Salvation Army provides 800-900 a year for Angel Tree children.

(Family numbers are not the same as the number of angels because families often have more than one child. For instance, this year, Chattanooga is serving 1,809 families, which accounts for 4,359 angels; Maryville has 336 children in 138 families.)


During their increment, parents sign in and are escorted to the distribution area (or drive around to it if The Salvation Army has a drive-through distribution), where volunteers will gather the family’s packages and take them to the car. In many locations, The Salvation Army also distributes food boxes or vouchers to cover either Christmas dinner or several days’ worth of groceries.

“Christmas distribution is one of our big days. We work hard getting ready for it, and we’re very relieved when it’s over,” said retired Salvation Army Major Peggy Mullins, who still volunteers in Bristol.

Among the gifts given are some bicycles. Both the Maryville and Chattanooga Salvation Armies have been blessed to receive these from donors. In Maryville, there were just over 100 requested this year, and 50 were donated right off the top; plus, the charity that donated 30 of those bikes also donated helmets and bike locks for all the bikes requested.

In Chattanooga, The Salvation Army gives out 800-900 bikes a year. Since 2011, a lot of them have come from a local church whose goal is 500 each year and who has donated more than 2,000 to date.

Two Salvation Army volunteers load bags of gifts into a cart to take to a waiting Angel Tree family.

Two Salvation Army volunteers load bags of gifts into a cart to take to a waiting Angel Tree family.

“We have a 36-hour bike drive with the church, where the pastor goes up on a 50-foot scissor lift in front of Walmart for 36 hours to bring attention to the Angel Tree program and to raise bicycles,” George said.

All gifts are unwrapped, which serves two functions, Mullins said. First, it allows the parents to participate in their children’s Christmas preparation by wrapping the gifts (some donors provide wrapping paper in their gift bags for the parents). Second, it adds a layer of security for The Salvation Army.

“That way we can be sure people aren’t donating some kind of trash,” she explained. “One time, there was a wrapped gift that had a dirty diaper in it; because The Salvation Army unwrapped it, they were able to catch it and not pass it on to a child. I’ve also known people that have put in pornography and stuff like that.”

In Madisonville, KY, after the regular distribution hours, people who signed up for Angel Tree after its October registration will receive gifts. Major Amy Edmonds said she calls those parents before distribution day to gather information about their children and then looks into the extra gifts The Salvation Army receives during Angel Tree to see what’s available for them.

(These extra items are the things every Salvation Army uses to supplement angels with less gifts and fill Forgotten Angels, which were either not adopted or had donors who did not return gifts in time.)

An Angel Tree parent and a Salvation Army volunteer load the woman's family's gifts into her car.

An Angel Tree parent and a Salvation Army volunteer load the woman’s family’s gifts into her car.

“It’s just a slower distribution process because we don’t already have the kids’ gifts,” Edmonds said. “The extreme late ones, who show up or sign up the week of distribution, we still take their names and try to do something that’s age appropriate.”

Of the four Salvation Army corps spoken to, two have distribution at their corps building and two have a separate Angel Tree warehouse. Though not every Salvation Army warehouse has the capacity for drive-through distribution, Chattanooga and Madisonville do, and both enjoy it.

George described Chattanooga’s process.  “The Angel Tree recipients come in through one side of the warehouse, sign that they’re picking up their gifts and receive their Angel Tree number on an index card to put in their front window. They’ll go back to their car and drive around to the back side of the warehouse. As they’re doing that, a runner gets their gifts and takes them out back. Then, they drive up, and as their number is called there, it’s matched to their car, where volunteers come out to put their gifts in.”

Madisonville’s warehouse last year worked the same way, but it has a new building this year with the garage doors in the front, so now, Angel Tree recipients will drive a circle around the building to line up for their gifts and fill their cars.

“It seems like we actually spent more time with the families last year, even though it was a drive-thru,” Edmonds said. “We actually spent more time face-to-face with all of them while they were in their car.

“You get ones that are so appreciative and crying,” she added of the recipients. “It’s just amazing and keeps us going.”

Mullins agreed regarding the Angel Tree recipients. “I’ve seen people with tears in their eyes because they were so thankful and so relieved to know that somebody cared so their children could have a Christmas. It’s very discouraging to parents when they know they’re broke and can’t pay their bills and then to take money from that for Christmas. It’s a blessing to be able to help like that.”