Presents are stacked to the ceiling, truckloads of candy are arriving and Wallins resident Mike Howard is just days away from slipping into his Santa suit for his annual trek of good cheer.
Howard has been collecting and delivering Christmas toys and treats to needy mountain children for 28 years, and his list of holiday helpers has grown by leaps and bounds since his first delivery.
On Friday night, the excited clamor of gift wrapping, candy sorting and package piling sounded in the background as Howard gave a rundown of his delivery schedule over the telephone to the reporter on the other end.
"We've got it piled high," Howard said. "We're wading through 14,000 suckers, 3,500 Kit Kats, 14,000 Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and 7,000 candy canes."
Howard will begin making deliveries on Monday. He plans to visit the areas nursing homes, the county jail and the Comprehensive Care Center.
Toys and candy deliveries to the children will begin on Friday and will take place every day until the following Tuesday.
"We're going to take Tuesday off to get ready for the big Christmas Eve delivery," Howard said. "We'll spend about 14 hours on Christmas Eve handing out the gifts."
Howard's outreach has grown through the years. His dedication to the ministry caused him to have to build on to the shop house where he originally stored all the toys, candy, clothing and other donated items. He lives at Wallins, and his place can be identified by the bright colored toys hanging from his now extended work shop.
"Santa's got a hard job," Howard once said, "not because of the tremendous amount of time and effort that goes into this. I've got plenty of volunteers who help me throughout the year. It's hard because of the sad things you see while delivering these presents. Santa might be know for being a jolly man, but his heart breaks on Christmas. Well, at least mine does."
Howard is quick to point out, however, that poverty is not just a Harlan County problem.
"It's all over the world," he said. "But it's up to us to take care of our own."
And that's exactly what Howard plans to do for as long as he's able. He's seen and heard too much to retire his Santa suit. As long as there's a forgotten child at Christmas, Howard will be hard at work in his Wallins workshop.
It's not too late for donations. Those wishing to contribute to the Mike Howard Christmas Outreach can contact him at 664-2458.