“I'm not the boss, Tom Shelton, owner of The Pantry & More, said. “I'm just His assistant.

And the assistant believes that he will have a set of clothes, a blanket, a toy, and an English-Spanish story of Jesus for 150 children, plus 1,000 English-Spanish Bibles, when he leaves for Escobedo, NL Mexico next month. Shelton said there are over 700 children ages 2 months to 10 years to be gift adopted this year.

“One in three households will clean out closets and toy boxes before Christmas to make room for new things, he said. “Many of the children I will see this holiday don't even have closets. Some of them live in cardboard lean-to structures.

The crusader began his annual trips to Mexico several years ago with only donated toys. Shelton said that last year his Christmas miracle was when he met his goal of donors gifting the 125 children on his list with toys and clothes.

“This year there are more due to the increase in the country's poverty level. But I have faith that I will be provided what is needed for those who have nothing, Shelton said.

He said his hope this year is to take 1,000 Bibles. Although Mexico is a devout religious county, he said that few have a copy of what most everyone else has, some on a dusty shelf. Even with the donation canisters in businesses, he said he realized it would be a stretch to pay for the number needed.

The answer to his money dilemma came by phone.

“The International Bible Society called me last week, without solicitation, and told me that for every two Bibles purchased, the company will donate a free one, Shelton said. “It was a God-send, but a quite a bit of cash must be raised in only a few weeks for the upfront payment.

Ever the faithful, he knows it will come as it always has.

“I never question how it will happen, because I just know it will, he said.

With so many children to help, the number is divided amongst the group working on the project.

“Each child has a picture card with the age and size of clothing, Shelton said. “Those who wish to adopt a Christmas child will select a card and return the items in a bag with the child's picture attached.

Shelton said there is no greater joy than seeing the spirit of the holiday light up the eyes of young ones who have had little to nothing to celebrate their entire lives.

“Just looking at them breaks your heart, he said. “There is no sunshine in the expressions on their faces because of their indigent lives.

Many in the community have joined Shelton's efforts in his mission to aid the less fortunate. He said without their dedication, he would not be able to continue the yearly journey into Mexico's interior. Praise Cathedral's pastor Isaias Fraga sometimes accompanies him on the long trip.

“It's exciting, he said. “Each trip is more exciting than the last.

Shelton proudly displays the crystal award received in Monterrey last year from Destellos de Amor (Sparkles of Love), and is presently a member on its board.

The Pantry & More is operated strictly on donations. Major companies contribute in various ways. Harvesting International Ministry, a non-profit organization to feed the hungry, delivers him thousands of pounds of food a year. Schreiber Foods, Inc., donates cheese, and Mrs. Baird's contributes a variety of items. Private businesses and individuals are also generous. Local and surrounding churches contribute regularly to his store.

“One day, I drove up to The Pantry, and there were 13 cases of chips from Mrs. Baird's on the front porch. Another time Discount Furniture donated a new mattress, and it was immediately delivered to a family with no bed, he said.

Originally, Shelton and a friend went out into the community and distributed both purchased and donated food items to those in need. When the number of deliveries increased, he felt led to purchase the building on East Washington, originally named The Food Pantry. With the additional merchandise received, it is now known as The Pantry & More. He said his door is open to anyone.

“My blessings have been compounded, he said. “I receive checks from people who have never seen the inside of my humble place, but like what I do.

When the Bosque River Center's General Dollar store closed, much of its inventory not sold during clearance was delivered to his store. The majority of the merchandise is still in boxes inside the building and outside under an awning. Looking at the large supply of goods, Shelton smiled and said, “Many in our own community will be blessed this year.

He said he truly feels that many will be led to him to adopt a Christmas child before he leaves on his first trip the middle of November.

“The Bibles are my most immediate concern, Shelton said. “For a timely delivery, the order must be placed within the next week.

Bible donation jars are located at Wranglers, Scriptures Christian Book Store, Castillo's, Bargain Town, Apple Tree, Car Quest, Pack & Mail Plus, Discount Furniture, TexasBank, Wireless Outfitters, Quality Printing, Shoe Dept, Panadaria, End Zone Pizza, Faith Lutheran Church, and possibly others to be added on request.

“The canisters indicate that $3 will buy a Bible, but any amount helps, he said.

Monday, he received word that enough funds had been collected for 100 Bibles. “That leaves 900 more, he said, “but that's 100 less than needed last week, he said.

Shelton said he considers himself just one of the flock who follows its leader, wherever it might be.

“I know my job is not finished, he said, “because I am still here.

To participate in Shelton's adopt a Christmas child's compassionate project or make a donation on the children's behalf, contact Shelton at The Pantry & More, 1599 E. Washington, 254-592-9696.

SHERRY BOARDMAN is a staff writer for the Empire-Tribune and can be reached at sherry.boardman@empiretribune.com or 254-968-3124, ext. 229.