PANAMA CITY, Fla. --
Members of the Air Force Civil Engineer Center celebrated Christmas early with students from Lucille Moore Elementary School during the annual “Spread the Joy” event Dec. 19.
Led by the Emergency Management team, AFCEC members provided the children of their community a hot meal and presents to open. The unmistakable sounds of tearing paper, gasps of surprise and squeals of excitement could be heard throughout the school’s cafeteria.
“It brings you joy and makes you realize things that we take for granted,” said Heather Mendiola, a member of the AFCEC Tyndall team and organizer of this year’s “Spread the Joy” event.
Earlier in the week, volunteers gathered at Tyndall to wrap more than 900 presents in less than four hours. Some of the more popular requests from the 150 children sponsored this year were dolls, figurine toys, slime, remote control cars and anything that involved superhero action figures.
While children were thrilled to receive toys from Santa, Mendiola said many were even more excited over a pair of shoes or a coat — a testament to the impact this event provides for Tyndall’s community.
“A kid that was in a different situation would be more excited about the toys than the clothes,” said Mendiola.
AFCEC, a primary subordinate unit of the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center, has been leading this event since 2014 through its Emergency Management team. The unit was unable to host the event in 2018 in the wake of Hurricane Michael, providing an even bigger desire for the AFCEC team to deliver a memorable holiday event this year, said Col. Timothy Dodge, AFCEC deputy director.
“This year we partnered with Mercy Chefs, a charitable organization that provided a traditional Christmas meal of ham, turkey and pumpkin cake,” Dodge said. “The children walked away with full stomachs, gifts and big smiles on their faces. It was awesome.”
Mercy Chefs has been serving meals in Bay County since the day after the hurricane. For this event, the organization prepared nearly 450 meals.
“We say all the time that something happens over a shared meal,” said Gary LeBlanc, a Mercy Chef. “In a community like Bay County, that is still hurting and still trying to get over the hump, this is just incredible.”
LeBlanc said it was an honor and a privilege to be asked by AFCEC Tyndall to be a critical part of what has quickly turned into one of the most important events in the area for underprivileged children.
“To partner with the Civil Engineer Center is what we always hope to do – find people who are already doing great things in the community and just come alongside them with a meal,” he said. “To be able to step in tonight and be a part of this is very humbling.”