AUSTIN, Minn. - This holiday season will be Thomas Herrera's 5th year raising money to buy children and teens Christmas presents in the Austin and Albert Lea area. The effort has continuously grown each year and he's now purchasing gifts for youth in Rochester and Mankato as well.
Thomas knows first-hand what it's like to grow up in a family struggling to make ends meet. He has vivid memories of Christmas shopping with Shop with a Cop as a child, a program where children from low socioeconomic backgrounds are given money to pick out gifts for themselves and their family members with the help of a member of law enforcement. "If it wasn't for programs like the Salvation Army and other programs to help us receive assistance, I believe there would have been times where we wouldn't have had anything to eat at all," Hererra explains. "Which is tough to think about because there are children and families and teens in this town who do experience that, who experience food insecurity, they do experience lights turning off. It's a terrible feeling. I know what it feels like and I want to relieve that stress."
Now a successful nurse and member of the National Guard, Herrera is lending a hand this Christmas to families who are in a similar situation as he was as a child. He is collecting donations and selling authentic autographed sports and Marvel memorabilia. He describes himself as a big Minnesota sports fan and Marvel Comics geek.
The money raised allows Herrera to purchase Christmas gifts for area children and teens. He sets aside at least $1,000 to purchase books. He also emphasized buying his recipients shoes. "A new pair of shoes can do so much for a child. When they open a box of a brand new pair of let's say a name brand shoe like Nike, and they see that and it's only ever been theirs, it makes them feel good and I know that because I've experienced that," says Herrera. The money also buys clothing, toys, and he recently purchased laptops for teens preparing for college. He purchases many of the gifts locally, such as books at Sweet Reads and shoes from Shoe Sensation in Austin.
Herrera believes new shoes give children and teenagers self-confidence and new books will help them learn and grow.
He raised thousands of dollars in a matter of days. Now, he's raised more than $12,000 of his $15,000 goal. He expects to buy gifts for more than 100 families this year. Even once Christmas has passed, he expects more families to reach out to him for help.
If you'd like to donate to Operation Christmas Eve or purchase an autographed item benefitting the cause, click here to check out Herrera's Facebook fundraiser.