In its 20th year, the Central Arkansas Firefighters Christmas Boot Drive was able to provide gifts to nearly 600 Faulkner County children.

Since the program, formally called "Fill the Boot," began, it has provided Christmas for more than 13,000 children and their families.

Local firefighters and other volunteers hold out boots on the weekends for three weekends prior to Christmas to collect money to provide gifts to local children who otherwise would go without on Christmas Day. Money raised is also used to provide Christmas dinner to local families.

Charlie Bates, CAFCBD director and a Conway Fire Department engineer, said the Christmas boot drive helps bring hope to Faulkner County families.

"It's not really what the CBD means to me, but what it means to the families in Faulkner County," he said. "We want families to feel hope and love each Christmas. It's a stressful time of year for some, but how much more for the mom that isn't sure if her child will have something to unwrap on Christmas Day? To that mother, we provide hope and not just gifts. Jesus said: 'Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.'"

Each Christmas boot drive volunteer sacrifices in order to keep the program running as it has the past 20 years.

Being able to show the mother who could not afford gifts for her child is only a small-scale representation of the sacrifices these volunteers make, Bates said.

Helping to those who otherwise would have gone without and giving love to those in need keeps the Christmas spirit going, he said.

"The ultimate love is the whole reason for Christmas," Bates said. "God came down to rescue us. We can't do enough good works to outweigh our bad deeds. The debt is too great. So Jesus takes our crimes upon himself to the cross to pay our debt. He lived the perfect life to pay four our imperfect ones."

The boot drive allows individuals to take part in the deeper roots of the Christmas holiday, he said.

"Christmas is celebrating the Lord coming to rescue the world and that's the greatest love we can share to those in Faulkner County," he said.

In its early years, the CAFCBD was a wing under the Conway Firefighters Association Local 4016 but has since grown to incorporate other volunteer areas in central Arkansas.

The program has grown from its original Conway roots over the past 20 years, breaching out to include Greenbrier, Vilonia, Mayflower, Wooster, Mt. Vernon-Enola and Guy. Volunteers were able to raise funds and provide to children of 20 Faulkner County schools.

Last year, volunteers were able to raise funds and provide Christmas to 650 children, while serving 125 local families.

This year, volunteers collected around $28,000, while providing Christmas to 597 children and giving food boxes to 207 families.

Cpt. Rick Powell has participated in the program for 19 years.

Being able to make a difference in children's lives keeps him coming back each year.

"Knowing that I'm helping a child out at Christmas [is what I like most about it]," he said. "Some of these folks have it really bad."

Bates, who has served as director for two years, said the ability to honor God and give back to others is a feeling that keeps him involved.

"My favorite part and what drives me is honoring God through all of this," Bates said. "He gave me this opportunity so he deserves the boasting. During Christmas, I think about a distraught mother praying for help, hoping help comes. I hope God uses the CBD to answer that prayer."

The CAFCBD has served to make a local impact for 20 years and will continue to do so for many more.

"The 20th anniversary is a testament to the men and women before me that have persevered through the years," Bates said. "There are ups and downs with any organization. I think that it just shows how the CBD, formerly Fill the Boot, really is doing some good in the world."

Bates said he's glad to work alongside his wife, Chelsi, during this process.

"In every area I lack, including organizational skills, mass communicating, scheduling, etc., she excels," he said. "She also is my closest advisor on things and isn't scared to tell me when I'm wrong, which is good. And, if she agrees with one of my ideas, then I know it's a good one. It can be overwhelming, especially with a 2 year old and one one the way, but she loves it."

Chelsi organized several shopping hours and present lists, tailored to each family and the individual children of each of the 20 schools who would be receiving gifts through the CAFCBD this year.

Several volunteers gathered Dec. 12 at Antioch Baptist Church in Conway to wrap all the gifts purchased for this year's group of children. Volunteers started at 5 p.m. and finished up around 10 p.m.

While helping out, many volunteers learned just how much work goes into making the CAFCBD a success each year.

"Several volunteers shared with me that they had no idea of the magnitude of the operation we have going on," Charlie said. "I hope volunteers see that a little bit of time makes a huge difference for getting things together and ready by delivery day."