FLORENCE, Ala. – There are some people you meet, and you immediately know their heart is in the right place. Hunter Jackson is one of those people. In late November of 2020, Jackson prepared himself both mentally and physically to camp on a school bus to make sure children in northwest Alabama had gifts to open on Christmas Day. “This is the one thing that I have been looking forward to since last year,” said Jackson, a radio personality for My 101.5 in the Shoals.
Hunter Jackson and Florence City Schools have partnered together for eight years in a project they call “Stuff the Bus”. On November 28, Jackson boarded a school bus parked in front of Walmart on Hough Road in Florence. Jackson’s mission, to collect 3,000 donated Christmas gifts for ages infant to 18-years old. A goal that was set by Jackson following a very successful 2019 campaign.
“We had enough faith and what we hoped for to get over 2,500 toys, setting it to 3,000, helping more families when more families need it, it’s special,” explained Jackson.
As part of the partnership, Jackson continually broadcasts across the Singing River Media Group of radio stations that include: My 101.5, 94.9 “The Bull”, 100.1 WLAY, and Rock 105.5 “The Big Dog”. The live broadcasts include interviews with school districts in northwest Alabama that distribute the donated gifts to their students in need and community leaders.
“The fact that we have set ourselves up for helping more people than ever before, I think the community is drawn to something like this,” said Jackson.
In 2020, Hunter Jackson spent 14-days on the bus, sleeping in the aisle under numerous blankets. He surpassed his goal and collected a record 3,500 gifts for children in Lauderdale and Colbert counties. During the current pandemic, the need has been even greater among our neighbors and friends in the Shoals area.
“It replays now, how so many people that had all the bit of certainty that they weren’t going to be that family, are that family this year,” said Jackson. “We didn’t plan the pandemic we’re in. And I just think having something so accessible and convenient and so easy to contribute to available, with a good process in place and a good team like Florence City Schools and like Walmart and all the helpers from the school districts around us, this was more successful than ever before.”
After the 2019 Stuff the Bus collection was counted and divided up, Jackson made a request. He asked to ride along with the school system social workers who were distributing the gifts to families. The experience opened his eyes to the needs around us.
“That did put a whole new meaning behind this,” stated Jackson. “Because I did see how bad off people had it, and to know the pandemic has been even more crippling to those people, we just have to get up and do our best this year. If I can do anything based on my experience to contribute to that push to get people to do their best, I feel like I am in the right spot.”
Stuff the Bus encourages community members to donate new, unwrapped gifts during the drive to the school bus. Once the bus is full, the gifts are unloaded by Florence City Schools employees and divided among school districts that include: Florence City Schools, Lauderdale County Schools, Sheffield City Schools, Tuscumbia City Schools, Muscle Shoals City Schools, and Colbert County Schools.
The program works with school system Social Workers identifying families who need help and then place them on the distribution list. In previous years, the gifts were delivered to the homes of the families. But because of the current pandemic, gifts were picked up by the families at a distribution center. For the first time, 2020 families also received a live Christmas tree donated for free by a northwest Alabama tree farmer.
For additional information on the Stuff the Bus project, contact Ms. Sonja Croone, a Social Worker with Florence City Schools (firstname.lastname@example.org).