WILLIAMSBURG ó Everybody loves a surprise gift, especially children. Thatís why Carol Van Dee, manager of Colony Point BP convenience store near Tanger Outlet Center, collected nearly 1,000 stuffed animals last year to give away to customersí children.
Itís why sheís been at it again this year.
"A lot of Ďem are in just to get gas," Carol says about the children and their parents. "They donít know anything is going on."
But Carol or one of the clerks will hand each child a stuffed bear, dog, cat, reindeer ...
"Merry Christmas," they will say.
"We gave the last bear away on Christmas Eve," says Carol, 69. "That was perfect."
It could be the same today, too. Plenty of stuffed animals remained after Santa paid his visit Dec. 15, handing out a couple hundred toys.
"Christmas is about giving," Carol says. "Itís not about anything else. The kids have come in and have been all giggles."
Seven young girls stopped on their way to a birthday party to sit on Santaís knee.
A family traveling to Davenport was overjoyed ó the animals would keep the children occupied the rest of the trip.
"How come we donít have any snow?" asked another little boy.
"Grandma," pleaded Santa (actually Kegan Cameron, 19, of Marengo, sitting in for him). "I need some help."
In his red suit with a white beard, Santa relied on help from his siblings ó Skylar, 16, who handed out chocolate "Kisses from Santa" and Boston, 15, who opened and closed the door.
"Itís all right," Kegan says. "The kids have fun."
"One little girl asked for math books because she loves to study," says Skylar.
Carol, who has worked at the station for 20 years and managed it for 13, began this tradition two years ago. Christmas has always been a big deal for the family ó she and her husband, David, who live in Deep River, have nine children, 19 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Carol thought, why not help out other families.
She began buying stuffed animals in good condition or better at garage sales, flea markets and auctions. Other family members pitched in. They all help repair, clean and sanitize them throughout the year. And soon others, from area stores to womenís clubs to friends, jumped on the bandwagon to donate more stuffed animals.
"We didnít count them this year," Carol says. But she looks around the store jam packed with stuffed animals, from crowded shelves to the faux roof over the checkout counter to the Christmas tree made with white teddy bears.
"Itís good," she says, simply, "to give to the kids."