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Marine vet raising thousands to buy Christmas gifts for kids impacted by deadly tornado

Bag of gifts and Christmas tree. (Pixabay/Released)
December 21, 2021

A U.S. Marine veteran started a fundraiser last week that has raised tens of thousands of dollars to bring Christmas to the children who lost everything in the tornado that devastated Kentucky earlier this month.

While volunteering at a church shelter that was supporting victims of the natural disaster, Shawn Triplett told PEOPLE on Friday that he witnessed a scene that broke his heart.

“I saw a child, no older than 6 years old, crying in his mother’s arms. She was crying too, but you could tell she was doing her best to look strong,” he recalled. “The boy told his mom, ‘I’ve lost my Christmas.’ It was at that moment that I broke down and had to walk outside.”

“It gut-punched me and hurt,” said Triplett. “I felt actual pain at that moment. I tried to sleep that night but I couldn’t. The pain in that kid’s voice broke me in half. I had to do something about it.”

Taking matters into his own hands, Triplett launched a GoFundMe to help buy presents for the children displaced by the deadly tornado. The fundraiser was shared across social media, including Reddit, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and has collected over $87,000 in donations as of Tuesday afternoon. Triplett also partnered with the local Walmart, which agreed to apply a 25 percent discount on all gifts purchased for the effort.

“I was going to give them back their Christmas. That was my mission,” Triplett explained. “There was so much support in the community for water, generators and food, but nobody was thinking about the kids. At least, not in the way it should be, so close to Christmas.”

“The reality is that most of these families were already living in low-income housing. Most had probably never had a ‘great’ Christmas. Most of the kids’ families were already on a strapped budget,” he added. “Now their house is gone, the parents’ jobs are gone, their parent or parents might be gone, school friends… It just made me focus on the task that much more.”

Triplett said the response has been “unreal.” What started as just friends and family pitching in has grown to a worldwide effort, with donations pouring in from “all over the globe.”

“Our original goal was to support 30 kids, but because of the GoFundMe, we’re able to reach hundreds of kids — and that’s my biggest joy, being able to give these kids so much,” Triplett continued. “The support has been humbling and overwhelmingly incredible.”

Triplett said the toys are being paid for by the donors, but he is covering the cost of wrapping paper. He also plans to personally deliver the gifts before Christmas – while dressed as Jolly Old Saint Nicholas himself.

“We chose to wrap them so that the kids get the full experience of what Christmas should be,” he explained. “They’re all labeled per gender and age range. We also took skin tone into consideration with dolls and have both unisex toys, as well as family presents.”

“We’re hoping to expand and have some items for older kids as well,” Triplett continued. “We’re doing everything we can to normalize a traumatic experience for them, even if just for a few hours.”

Triplett told the outlet that he wants people to always remember one thing: “Please be reminded of Mr. Rogers. ‘Look for the helpers. You can always find people who are helping.'”

“To all those who have helped with your donations, your time, even just by sharing the cause, thank you so much from the bottom of my heart,” he added. “Everything you have done for this cause has meant the world to me. Children need to be children, they don’t need to be reminded of trauma every day.”