OKALOOSA ISLAND — On Christmas Day, Stan and Virginia McClendon didn't exchange presents by a warm fire and their loving grandchildren, but instead traveled 396 miles to feed, clothe and meet with the homeless community of Pensacola.

For the past five years during the holiday season, the McClendons have made the trek to Fort Walton Beach from their home in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in their RV to volunteer at Gulf Islands National Seashore on Okaloosa Island. After eating a hot meal in Pensacola in 2014, they discovered the homeless community under the Pensacola Bay Bridge and decided “they wanted to make a difference.”

“We would drive down the Three Mile Bridge with full bellies after eating and I would just wonder if they had food,” Virginia McClendon said. “One day I just felt like I had to go down there. We spoke to the people and they were so kind. There was one woman I spoke with who just brought me to tears.” 

The couple, who celebrated their 52nd wedding anniversary Jan. 1, provided 24 hamburgers, 24 hot dogs, condiments, deserts, 350 socks and other clothes this Christmas to those in need. However, they made sure to clarify they didn’t do it alone, but had many other financial and clothing donations. The McClendons and seven other donors raised $300. Among the donors was retired Master Sgt. Bobby Mancuso of the 101st Airborne Division, who raised $101.01 at a division reunion in Chattanooga. 

“We love to come out here and give to the homeless community and volunteer at the National Seashore,” Virginia said with a smile. “It is our Christmas gifts to each other. We appreciate all of the donations and help we get. A lot of times the homeless are referred to as ‘bums.’ They’re not bums; they are humans with a heart and a soul and feelings. We love to help them.”

On Christmas Day 2015, the couple said they fed 25 people. However, Stan McClendon said the number dropped to 17 people after police told the homeless community to no longer stay under the bridge.

“We ended up having 17 people show up, and they received food, clothes, toiletries and plenty of food to take with them,” Stan said as he leaned back in a chair in the RV. “It just feels good to help people and give them something they really need. They had one gentleman who left with an entire duffel bag full of clothes, food and a whole stack of pies. I believe he was taking it to share it with the rest of the homeless community.”

Next Christmas the couple said they plan to add another feeding location in Fort Walton Beach in addition to their annual meal under the Pensacola bridge. The retired couple said they feel they have more than they need and just want to give to someone who does not. The McClendons encouraged people to stop by their RV in the Gulf Islands National Seashore’s parking lot next year to donate items or sign up to volunteer.

“I would tell anyone who wants to come and help us to come,” Stan said. “We get here every year on Dec. 1. ... The homeless people enjoy each other’s company, too. They were out there eating, talking and laughing. They had one guy who was so hungry he didn’t even want to wait until we were finished cooking. These people need our help.”