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Bringing Christmas to children around the world

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First Baptist volunteers packing shoeboxes last year (photo courtesy First Baptist Church of Vicksburg)

It won’t be long before we are inundated with Christmas lights twinkling in stores, carols on the radio and television commercials hawking the latest “it” toys destined to turn up on many children’s Christmas lists.

For many underprivileged children around the world, though, there is no reason to wait up on Christmas Eve. There are no jingling bells or red-nosed reindeer.

Members of First Baptist Church of Vicksburg have worked to share joy and hope to needy children in troubled countries like El Salvador and India for the last 25 years. They have partnered with a ministry of Samaritan’s Purse called Operation Christmas Child. Samaritan’s Purse is a Christian relief and evangelism ministry led by Franklin Graham.

Operation Christmas Child’s mission is to fill shoeboxes with toys, school supplies, hygiene items and other small trinkets to be delivered to children who would not otherwise experience the joy of receiving gifts on Christmas morning.

The project begins with FBC committee members asking people to make donations.

“Many parents use this project to teach their kids about giving,” said Lynda Oswalt, a longtime volunteer. “We often have teachers who are looking for service projects for their classes, and the students get to be involved.”

The filled shoeboxes are taken to First Baptist Church which serves as the drop-off location for all of Warren County.

“Every box is checked for appropriate items before being taken to the distribution center in Atlanta,” Oswalt said.

The number of shoeboxes collected is in the thousands, so the ministry depends on volunteers to inspect and prepare each one for shipping. Work stops for a few minutes every hour and everyone prays for the children who will end up receiving them.

Cartons of shoeboxes ready for shipment. (photo courtesy First Baptist Church of Vicksburg)

The organization delivers shoeboxes in more than 100 countries worldwide where churches hand out the gifts at festive outreach events where the Gospel is clearly presented. Some boxes are distributed to orphanages, hospitals and places that house children at risk to share the hope of Christ.

The ultimate goal of Operation Christmas Child is to introduce the story of Christ’s love to as many people as possible.

In 2012, Oswalt, Hester Pitts and Becky Yelverton traveled to Peru and witnessed the transformation of communities for themselves.

“We delivered 1,600 boxes to children and were able to tell them all about Christ’s love for us. Many of them accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior,” Oswalt said about the experience. “I can’t explain what that felt like. My heart was just beyond touched.”

To ensure this year’s shoeboxes reach their destinations on time, First Baptist will hold a dedication service Sunday, Nov. 15. Volunteers are still needed to help collect, inspect and pack the boxes.

Volunteers are also needed to fill the boxes with appropriate items. Some of these include toys such as small cars, balls, dolls, stuffed animals, harmonicas and yo-yo’s; school supplies such as pens, pencils, crayons, coloring books and writing pads; hygiene items such as toothbrushes, soap, combs and washcloths; and other items such as ball caps, socks, T-shirts, toy jewelry and books. Prohibited items include anything used, toy guns or other weapons, perishable food items, toothpaste, hard candy, medicines and liquids.

Volunteers and donors are encouraged to enclose a note to the child and a photograph of themselves or their families.

Oswalt said being a part of such a ministry fills her heart with joy. “Last year, 11 million boxes were collected nationwide, and Warren County was responsible for 5,531 of those,” she said. “That’s 11 million children ministered to and given the chance to know God. I can’t imagine receiving a better Christmas gift.”

If you are interested in donating or volunteering, please call Hester Pitts at 601-415-7334 or Lynda Oswalt at 601-629-7822.

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USACE employee receives 2020 Paralegal of the Year award

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Vincent “Vince” Farrell (photo courtesy USACE)

An employee with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Vicksburg District received the 2020 Paralegal of the Year award from the Mississippi Paralegal Association in Jackson Friday.

Vincent “Vince” Farrell was recognized by MPA for his “continuous example of professionalism and excellence in the legal community.” He serves as a paralegal specialist for the USACE Vicksburg District’s Office of Counsel and provides support for contract, environment, labor and employment, and litigation attorneys with a variety of specializations.

Since joining the district in 2018, Farrell has supported its vital investigations and litigations and has tracked over 500 contracting actions worth a combined total of over $500 million. Farrell also took the initiative to manage and coordinate the Office of Counsel’s administrative needs while simultaneously overhauling the law library and overseeing all training metrics for his colleagues.

In addition to his work as a paralegal, Farrell serves as an alternate district liaison officer to the state of Mississippi on behalf of USACE during severe weather events. He also serves as a district fire protection section monitor and assumes responsibility for the accountability and safety during fire-related drills and emergencies for the Office of Counsel, the district’s command suite and the chiefs of the district’s Operations Division.

He credits his success and accomplishments to support from his wife Ariel, their son Vincent and his parents, Vincent and Briceland Farrell, as well as the numerous colleagues and educators he has known throughout his life.

In addition to his award, Farrell was elected to the association’s board of directors as the central region director for 2021. He will serve as the voice of paralegals across 25 counties, establish and direct continuing legal education events, promote MPA membership within the region, and formulate activities to strengthen the paralegal population and relationships within central Mississippi.

“We are extremely proud of Vincent’s achievement and his continued dedication to USACE,” said David Dyer, USACE Vicksburg District head of the Office of Counsel, in a statement. “He has been invaluable in helping to achieve the district’s mission, and we are lucky to have his broad skill set and incredible work ethic.”

An alumnus of the U.S. Army’s Adjutant General School, Farrell has also earned certificates at Kansas State University, Boston University and an associate degree from Southern New Hampshire University. He is working toward his Bachelor of Science in criminal justice with a concentration in homeland security and counterterrorism from Southern New Hampshire University. A decorated and honorably discharged veteran, Farrell previously served as a paralegal supervisor at Schofield Barracks in Oahu, Hawaii, and Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. His service awards include two Army Commendation Medals, two Army Achievement Medals, two Army Good Conduct Medals, a National Defense Service Medal, a Global War on Terrorism Medal and an Army Service Ribbon.

MPA was founded in 1980 by Mississippi paralegals who aimed to encourage a higher order of ethical and professional attainment and promote the profession of paralegals statewide. The organization supports, encourages and maintains high standards for the service, conduct and ethics of paralegals.

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The remarkable career of former VFD Capt. Lee Griffin

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Retired Capt. Lee Griffin (photo courtesy)

Lee Griffin started his career with the Vicksburg Fire Department  in 1974 shortly after a butane tank explosion in Vicksburg.

Griffin’s friend, Jimmy Gibbs, convinced him to take the firefighter exam where he scored an 85 and quickly began his career as one of six African Americans at the VFD.

Griffin had many roles over his 25 years at the fire department such as driver, rescue, and assistant chief.

“I enjoyed the job, and I got along with just about everyone,” Griffin said.

Griffin recalls the first fire he responded to at Wyatt’s Motel where two units burned down.

“I remembering it being so hot. but it was definitely a learning experience,” Griffin said.

By 1984, after serving 10 years on the fire department, Griffin was promoted to captain and became the first African American to serve in that role with the Vicksburg Fire Department.

“I felt proud, but it really didn’t make any difference to me, and it took me a while to get used to,” Griffin said.

Throughout his firefighting career, Griffin worked closely with Craig Danczyk, who is now the VFD fire chief. Danczyk continues to speak highly about Griffin although it’s been more than two decades since the two have worked together.

“Vicksburg Fire Department Captain Lee Griffin was a Vietnam veteran and came to serve his local community after service to our nation. He was a great teammate, and people enjoyed working with him,” Danczyk said. “He looked out for me during the early years of my career, and I appreciated that as a young firefighter. He was the captain that would back his crew, but also coach you if you need to improve.”

To this day, Griffin still speaks highly of Danczyk as well. “He is one of the best chiefs that Vicksburg ever had, and I am glad about everything he is doing,” Griffin said.

In 1998, Griffin, Danczyk and James Montgomery were in an accident while responding to a fire.

“I was with him on Sunday, Nov. 8, 1998, when he made his last response on Engine 7,” Danczyk said.  “While responding to a motor vehicle accident, our pumper lost control on the North Frontage Road and drove off a bridge. The fall was 51 feet, and it was a miracle any of us survived.”

The accident was something Griffin will never forget, and he remains grateful that he survived.

“I prayed to God that he would save us, and everything had crushed down on me,” Griffin said. “… We made it through the front windshield, and Craig was able to pull me out.”

“I was glad everyone was able to make it out alive. I suffered from a broken pelvis,” he added. “Montgomery lost an eye and Craig had a scar along his back.”

Griffin stayed with the VFD for one more year after the accident and retired in 1999. He went on to work in security for five years before retiring again.

Griffin spent 10 years in the Army before joining the fire department where he was assigned to Vietnam and then Germany.

The city of Vicksburg will always be grateful to Griffin for his hard work and efforts to help everyone in the community.

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Brandi Rae still defying the odds and living life her way

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Brandi Rae Toney
Brandi with her alert dog, Kylie, who sadly passed away last year (photo courtesy of Toney family).

If you were to ask me if there is anything or anyone on God’s green earth that I would not bet against my answer would be emphatically, Brandi Rae Toney.

Almost 28 years ago, doctors told her parents that she would not live past the age of two. Brandi suffers from a rare neuromuscular disorder known as Spinal Muscular Atrophy or SMA. In spite of this affliction, she celebrated her 29th birthday this month.

There is no cure at this time for SMA. However, Brandi is now taking a new drug that will hopefully give her some benefit in developing and maintaining muscle mass. She has agreed to share her story and her progress with our readers.

Brandi’s condition has never slowed her down from her attempts to live as normal a life as possible. She operates her own business creating vinyl decals and custom shirts from her home. Her presence on social media is a constant source of entertainment for those of us who know and adore her, because as she will be the first to tell you, she is a bit of a 90’s fan and a total diva.

Her support system includes her mother Debra, her father, or as she refers to him “Diddy”, Charles Toney and his wife Christin. Along with her sister Brittany Thomason, her husband John and their family and Brandi’s immense circle of friends.

Some years back while on the staff at River 101 radio, I was privileged to be part of a group that staged a benefit called “Angel’s Wish”. Charles made one caveat when we did the benefit: that it not be a one-time deal. Brandi was the first benefactor. To the best of my knowledge, all of the recipients that followed have since passed on.

Brandi, or Brae as she prefers to be called, continues to defy the odds. Her kindness and perseverance are an inspiration to all who know her.

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