Walter Payne saved Christmas for some needy children Wednesday after he caught two men breaking into a semi-trailer where the Catholic Action Center stored toys to give to underprivileged families, according to the center's director.
"They could have cleaned us out," said Ginny Ramsey, the director.
The Faith and Community Christmas Store was set up in Vineyard Community Church, 817 Winchester Road. Toys were stored in a semi trailer parked behind the building.
Payne is one of 61 chronically homeless people who live in apartments as part of a Catholic Action Center program called From the Streets to a Home.
"We ask them to give back to the community," Ramsey said. "Walter volunteered to be our night watchman since last week, when the toys were brought over here."
Payne's shift started at 7 p.m.; he worked until 7 a.m. He told Ramsey he checked every door and every window, every 15 minutes.
Around midnight Tuesday, Payne looked out the back door and saw the door on the semi-trailer standing open. He went out, looked in the trailer and "realized there are people in there," Ramsey said. When Payne yelled, they jumped out, left everything and ran.
Payne called 911, and four police cars showed up in a matter of minutes. "They first tried to arrest Walter," Ramsey said.
Once Payne's identity was cleared up, police found that the burglars also tried to steal building materials and tools from Milner Electric Co., which is putting up a building behind Vineyard Community Church.
This is the 14th year for the Christmas store and its third year at the Winchester Road location. Throughout the year, the Catholic Action Center accepts donations of gently used toys.
In 2007, parents shopped for 9,817 children; last year, the number jumped to 14,132 youngsters. Ramsey says she expects at least that many children will have gotten toys and bikes from the store this year.
The store opened Monday; Wednesday was the last shopping day. Ramsey said her cadre of volunteers planned to work well past 10 p.m. Wednesday to help parents find gifts.
The store was laid out with themed rooms — one with toys for infants and toddlers, another for 4- to 8-year-olds, and so on. Bikes and riding toys were parked together. There was a teenage boutique and a room with stocking stuffers. In the hallway was a giant pile of stuffed animals.
To shop at the store, parents got a ticket and stood in line. Each was paired with a volunteer personal shopper who held the bag of toys and kept them on schedule. They had 15 minutes to shop. Each parent could select toys for four children, choosing four toys for each, plus an unlimited number of books.
Charles Goldstein helped Della Cuzick, 19, shop for her three children Wednesday. She left with Fisher-Price toys, an educational learning center and a bouncy seat. "I'm going to wrap these tonight," Cuzick said. "This is mainly what my kids are getting for Christmas."
Goldstein brought his two adolescent children as volunteers so they could see that people in need are the same as people not in need.
William Burton, out of work for months, found dolls for his daughters, ages 4 and 6. "This is going to be their Christmas," he said, adding he thought the girls would be delighted with his choices.
Savannah Burton picked out stuffed animals for her 2-year-old son, plus dolls and trucks for three nieces and nephews.
"Coming here makes this the best Christmas ever," she said.
Payne might be to thank for that.