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Fire upends Christmas charity in Michigan but thousands of kids will still get gifts

This image taken Nov. 27, 2023, shows gifts for thousands of children in the Grand Rapid, Mich., area were damaged by smoke from a recent fire at the DeltaPlex in Walker, Mich. A Christmas charity, Santa Claus Girls of Kent County, can't deliver them because of smoke damage from a recent fire. The group will give gift cards instead. (Rick Bartling via AP) This image taken Nov. 27, 2023, shows gifts for thousands of children in the Grand Rapid, Mich., area were damaged by smoke from a recent fire at the DeltaPlex in Walker, Mich. A Christmas charity, Santa Claus Girls of Kent County, can't deliver them because of smoke damage from a recent fire. The group will give gift cards instead. (Rick Bartling via AP)
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Donations are pouring in at a beloved Christmas charity after smoke damage from a fire stymied plans for the delivery of wrapped gifts for thousands of children in western Michigan.

Santa Claus Girls of Kent County has been going door-to-door with gifts for more than a century in the Grand Rapids area, delighting families that are struggling during the holidays.

But the all-volunteer group has been scrambling since a fire last week struck a building in Walker where Santa Claus Girls wraps and stores gifts.

"It was like my heart stopped," president Tina Hudson told The Associated Press. "We were on target to service more than 10,000 kids on Dec. 9. We had half of our gits wrapped and bagged and ready to go out the door."

The good news: Flames didn't reach the area used by Santa Claus Girls. The bad news: Smoke filled the space for hours.

"Everything's contaminated -- that was the word that was used by the insurance company," Hudson said Thursday. "You could smell a bonfire smell."

The holiday isn't lost. Santa Claus Girls will instead deliver gift cards for 8,500 children to be used at Meijer, a local big-box store. Hudson wouldn't disclose how much each family will receive but said the cost will be covered by insurance.

"Come heck or high water, these kids are going to have some kind of Christmas from us," she said.

Meanwhile, cash donations "are flooding in" as a result of the fire, Hudson said.

The group already was trying to raise $200,000 for Christmas 2024 and had topped $100,000 by Wednesday, she said.

"There are a lot of giving hearts in the greater Grand Rapids area," said Hudson, her voice cracking.

Some gifts might be OK to use next year. But Santa Claus Girls won't know until each package is inspected in the months ahead. The packages contain pajamas, blankets, books, toys and handmade hats.

And they make a difference.

"My son got some PJs last year that he loved and he hasn't been able to take them off not even to wash. We have to sneak them away to wash them. ... Thank you for all you do!" local mom Salma Odaly said on Facebook.

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