Volunteers crowded the aisles of the Gonzales Wal-Mart on Dec. 11 for the long-standing shopping night tradition that makes the Ascension Parish sheriff’s Christmas Crusade for Children a success year after year.

For more than 20 years, Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley and his staff organize a Christmas gift program for area children.

Students, business volunteers and residents raise the money needed to buy the toys and gifts, which were handed out Saturday in Gonzales and Donaldsonville. Many area groups donate toys and items for the program, Deputy Janet Fontenot said.

Parents apply for the program and provide wish lists.

It takes weeks of planning and countless hours of work to prepare for the giveaways.

The shopping night has become a tradition for many families and groups that have taken part for years.

To kick off the event, Chief Deputy Tony Bacala greeted the crowd and explained the shopping process. Cards distributed among the crowds had the names, ages and wish lists of more than 685 children, according to Allison Hudson, public information officer for the Sheriff’s Office.

Shoppers were given a $40 price limit and sent into the aisles.

Once the wish-list items were collected, shoppers brought the gifts to registers reserved for the event. There, the Sheriff’s Office paid the receipts as inmates from the Ascension Parish Jail bagged items.

Approximately $25,000 was spent on purchases, Bacala said.

After items were bagged, they were taken to be matched with bags of gifts contributed by other organizations.

Outside the store, bags were matched through a coding system, divided by city, family and child, Bacala said.

The Marine Bikes for Tikes program donated 150 new and refurbished bicycles. Inmates from Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola donated refurbished bikes and made hand-crafted wooden toys and jewelry boxes and jewelry to be given to children this Christmas, Bacala said.

“There might be $40,000 total value of gifts being given,” Bacala said.

“We have thousands of gifts,” Fontenot said.

This year alone, Donaldsonville Glass contributed $1,500, and Marine Bikes for Tikes raised $7,000. Rubicon provided $500, as well as gifts for 40 children, and Wal-Mart gave $2,500, Fontenot said.

Lake Elementary School, in Gonzales, which gave $6,000, had 108 students serving as Santa’s elves for the night, said Stephanie St. Pierre, the school’s Beta Club sponsor. This is the school’s 10th year participating in the Christmas Crusade for Children, St. Pierre said.

Students raised money through dance recitals, change drives and other efforts, St. Pierre said.

“We’re teaching these youngsters, teens and preteens about charity, about thinking of others more than themselves,” Bacala said.

Students were excited to be able to participate in the shopping ritual.

Katelyn Bedford, 12, said she’d heard about the program from other students.

“I want to see people who can’t afford to have Christmas, have Christmas,” Bedford said as she shopped.

Students from Lake Elementary School also helped distribute gifts on Saturday, St. Pierre said. Student Sophie Smith, 11, said of the Christmas Crusade for Children, it “gives people a chance to have presents for Christmas. It’s good to have something to open.”

Since the Christmas Crusade for Children began more 20 years ago, thousands of children have benefited each Christmas, Bacala said.

“We confirm that these children are truly disadvantaged,” Bacala said. Hudson said approximately 685 children from nearly 340 families received gifts this year.

“It does put a smile on your face when you see children receive a gift,” Bacala said.

Wal-Mart employee Josie Young called the program “the most marvelous idea that they could come up with.”

“That shows that there is still peace somewhere in this world,” Young said. “It helps the fortunate think of the less fortunate in such a busy season.”