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When Jimmy Wayne was 14 years old, his name was on an Angel Tree. He wished for a guitar, and someone who picked his name off a tree in his native western North Carolina bought him one for Christmas. It was his first guitar, and it took him from a life of poverty to a career as a musician.
Now I m playing concerts for a living, Wayne said.
Wayne, 41, a country music singer and songwriter based in Nashville, Tenn., stopped by The Salvation Army s Angel Tree in the Dillard s wing of Bel Air Mall in Mobile on Saturday afternoon. It was the first day for the tree to be displayed, and by 4 p.m. about 40 of the 1,900 available angels, each representing a needy child in Mobile and Baldwin counties, had been taken.
On the tree hang strips of white paper with the name, age, gender and clothing size of each child, as well as their Christmas wish and other needs.
As shoppers walked by, they might have been unaware that a rising star in the world of country music was in their midst. Two singles from Wayne s self-titled debut album, Stay Gone and I Love You This Much, both reached the Top Ten on the Billboard country charts in 2003. The title track from his second album, Do You Believe Me Now, was his first Number One song, in 2008. That album also included Paper Angels, an homage to The Salvation Army s Angel Tree program. In 2009, he recorded a cover of Hall and Oates Sara Smile, with background vocals by Hall and Oates themselves.
Slight and unassuming, Wayne looked like any other mall-goer Saturday afternoon in his casual outfit and Nikes not a cowboy hat or boot in sight.
Not only did he not look like a country singer, he also didn t look like someone who survived a tough childhood thanks to the kindness of strangers, including The Salvation Army and foster families who took him in when his mother served time in prison. After earning a degree in criminal justice and working as a corrections officer for four years, Wayne moved to Nashville to pursue a career in music.
He s in town to perform at Tuesday s Paint a Brighter Future fundraising luncheon for The Salvation Army Coastal Alabama. Tickets are still available for the event, which will be held at Dauphin Way United Methodist Church at 11:30 a.m. For more information, call The Salvation Army office at 251-438-1625.
Katherine Pearl was one of the shoppers who stopped and selected two paper angels from the tree Saturday afternoon. With her husband and 6-year-old son in tow, Pearl chose two 6-year-olds. We have a son the same age, she said, so hopefully he ll pick good presents for someone else who doesn t get as much at Christmas.
Many people, like Pearl, choose to buy gifts for children who are their own children s ages. One of those Saturday was Britney Steele, who has a 1-year-old of her own. She picked a 1-year-old from the tree earlier in the day, but then, after her shift as an associate at Dillard s was over, she returned to add the baby s 6-year-old sibling.
I was feeling bad because I didn t get the other one, so I came back, she said. I want my son to know the value of giving back. When she was growing up, she said, her stepfather would always adopt children from the Angel Tree.
Several shoppers who chose angels earlier in the day returned with bags of gifts later in the afternoon. One man had eight packages he brought back, said volunteer Carol MacLean, who worked a shift at the Angel Tree table as a member of the Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP). I was pretty impressed.
Angel Trees are also located at Walmart Vision Centers in Mobile and Baldwin counties, as well as the Tanger Outlet Center in Foley, and at Sand Dollar Lifestyles at The Wharf in Orange Beach. Some area businesses and churches have Angel Trees as well.
New, unwrapped gifts must be returned to the Angel Tree location by Dec. 11. The gifts are distributed to parents in clear plastic bags, and wrapping paper is provided so that they can wrap the presents and give them to their children themselves.
They don t ask for much, said Jimmy Wayne, looking over the children s wishes on the tree: scooter, push toys, Nerf gun, bikes and one close to his heart a guitar.
Wayne said he received gifts from the Angel Tree twice, once when he was 9 and again at 14. He and his sister were in and out of foster care, but when they were with their mother, he said, they depended on The Salvation Army. That s why he s so committed now to giving back to the organization.
Each year at Christmas, Wayne vehemently requests that his friends adopt children from an Angel Tree and bring the receipts to him instead of buying him presents.
God has blessed me so much, he said. If it s the thought that counts, it s getting one of these (a tag from the tree) and bringing the receipt. It s pretty awesome. I ve got everything I need.
As a shopper leaves with a child s wish in hand, Wayne smiled. You ve made a kid s Christmas, he said. It s just that simple.
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