Ky. Man Raises Thousands to 'Give Back Christmas' to Kids Impacted by Deadly Tornadoes

"I had to do something," Shawn Triplett tells PEOPLE of collecting gifts for the children

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Shawn Triplett with the holiday gifts he collected and wrapped. Photo: Shawn Triplett

A Kentucky man wanted to ensure that the kids in his community had a special holiday season despite losing nearly everything in the deadly tornadoes — and he's now on a mission to make it happen.

Shawn Triplett, a retired U.S. Marine who now works as a volunteer at a local elementary school, tells PEOPLE that he was recently helping out at a church shelter when he witnessed a devastating interaction with a mom and her young child after they had been displaced by the tornadoes.

"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 recalls. "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," Triplett, 38, says. "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."

After taking the night to "think about how I could best help," Triplett says he decided to ask friends and family to donate money so he could buy toys for the children who were impacted.

"I was going to give them back their Christmas. That was my mission," he explains. "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."

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The toys that Shawn Triplett has collected for the kids impacted by the tornadoes. Shawn Triplett

"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 adds. "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 ended up launching a GoFundMe page to help purchase holiday gifts for the children, which quickly spread on Reddit, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Since launching the page three days ago, he has raised over $44,000. He's also partnered with the local Walmart, which has agreed to provide a 25% discount on all purchases for him.

"It's been unreal," he says of the support. "It started as just family and friends helping, to now donations coming 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," he adds. "The support has been humbling and overwhelmingly incredible."

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Toys that were collected for the children impacted by the tornadoes. Shawn Triplett

While the toys are fully covered by the donors, Triplett says he's been footing the bill for wrapping paper — and plans on personally delivering them in a Santa costume closer to Christmas.

"We chose to wrap them so that the kids get the full experience of what Christmas should be," he explains of the gifts. "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," he notes. "We're doing everything we can to normalize a traumatic experience for them, even if just for a few hours."

The Mayfield resident also plans on providing receipts and photos to donors, as well as thanking each and every person directly, to show the impact of their monetary gift.

"This isn't a 'me' project by any means," he notes. "This has been the result of thousands of people spreading the word and making it happen."

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A damaged movie theater in Mayfield, Kentucky, photographed by Shawn Triplett. Shawn Triplett

In addition to collecting gifts to bring a smile to the children, Triplett says he has been volunteering at a community center in Mayfield and recently served as a local guide for a photojournalist.

The two traveled around town, each snapping photos of the heartwrenching devastation, before ending up at a damaged theater.

"I made my way to the back of the theater and took that image as best I could," says Triplett, who was in Chicago during the tornado and rushed home as soon as he could. "I never wanted to forget that moment and all of the emotions that I felt at that time."

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The city of Mayfield damaged by the tornadoes. Shawn Triplett

"I've described it as a war zone but it just felt worse," he notes. "I was deployed to the Middle East three times and I've never seen anything like it. It's devastating to witness and it humbles you into being thankful for all that you have... I'm still trying to reconnect with a few of my friends. It's a strange feeling going to a gas station and wondering if you'll ever see your favorite cashier again."

As he continues to collect gifts and help out in his community, Triplett wants others to know 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 adds. "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."

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Mail carrier trucks in Mayfield that were damaged by the tornadoes. Shawn Triplett

At least 77 people have died in Kentucky following the weekend's tornadoes, Gov. Andy Beshear said in a press release on Friday. The victims range in age from 2 months to 98 years old.

Those interested in making a donation to Triplett's GoFundMe page can do so here.

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