'Happy' Christmas Fund Keeps Giving, Even During Pandemic

Items are loaded in a U-Haul truck at Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi.
Unsold items from the Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi, Commissary are loaded onto a truck to be delivered to the United Way of Lowndes County June 26, 2017. (Beaux Hebert/U.S. Air Force)

COLUMBUS, Miss. (AP) — Since the day in 1958 that bartender George “Happy” Irby set out a tip jar at the officer’s club bar on Columbus Air Force Base to provide children with warm clothing at Christmas time, the Happy Irby Christmas Fund has evolved and adapted.

For six decades, the Christmas charity project has grown from one man collecting tips to an enterprise involving dozens of volunteers, including the enthusiastic support of CAFB.

In recent years, The Happy Irby Christmas Fund provided clothing to 300 to 400 children with CAFB personnel devoting an evening to wrapping the presents.

This year, the program has adapted again, due to the challenges of COVID-19.

There were no presents of clothing to wrap.

“With COVID, we just weren’t able to do that,” said George Irby Jr., son of the fund’s namesake who has kept the project going. “Instead, we donated the money we raised to Building Bridges for Hope and the United Way for their Christmas programs. It seemed to be the best way to help.”

Even so, the idea of not reaching out directly to the community was something Irby and the volunteers couldn’t quite accept. There was one part of the program the group felt like it could continue.

So, on Tuesday, Irby, along with CAFB personnel, traveled throughout the city, distributing 100 fruit baskets to older community members.

“It’s just a way of keeping what started over 60 years ago going,” Irby said.

Using the Townsend Center as its staging area, the group fanned out across the community, providing a bit of Christmas cheer.

“It’s more than just a fruit basket,” said volunteer Annie Berry, whose Thanksgiving meal program had to be canceled this year. “It’s about letting people know they aren’t forgotten, that people care for them. When you see the looks on their faces, you know how much it means to them.”

For Irby, keeping the program going -- even in a much-altered form -- is a tribute to his parents and a reflection of the values they passed down to him.

“That was just how my parents were,” Irby said. “As a kid, if there were poor kids in the neighborhood that were hungry, my parents would feed them. I remember sometimes, they would even let people take a bath. I learned from them about humility and loving people. It’s a joy for us to be able to help, especially this time of year.”

Irby said in one respect, this year’s efforts harken back to the early years of the program.

“When it started, back in the '50s, they gave out fruit baskets. So in a way we’re going back to the original idea this year,” Irby said.

This article was written by SLIM SMITH, The Commercial Dispatch from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@industrydive.com.

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