East Lyme - A program that provides hundreds of holiday gifts for families began with a single idea from an East Lyme resident about 20 years ago.
Dolores Albrecht had wanted to instill in her three children one holiday season the value that "it really is better to give than receive." Her idea would blossom over the years into an annual gift-giving program by the Child & Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut.
Nearly two decades ago, Albrecht approached the Child & Family Agency to ask if her family could sponsor the gifts a family would need for the holiday season. The New London-based agency, which has auxiliary agencies in several towns, provides social services for children and families. The agency's former director of development, Judy Lovelace, as well as other members, facilitated the initiative and helped build the program over the years.
After the first year, Albrecht, a member of the East Lyme auxiliary, would continue each holiday season to give gifts to a family in need. The East Lyme auxiliary also became involved, and the program then spread to other town branches of the agency.
It evolved into a program called "Polar Express" where this year about 65 individuals and businesses and the six auxiliary agencies, which encompass towns such as East Lyme, Lyme, Old Lyme, Groton and Mystic, purchase gifts for families, according to Lynn Fairfield-Sonn, director of community relations for the Child & Family Agency.
To prepare for the holiday program, counselors meet with nominated families to determine what gifts they might want over the holiday season. Individuals or businesses then step forward to shop for the gifts the family requested. Volunteers wrap the gifts - including bicyles, desks and toiletries - and place them in big, red plastic bags for clinicians to deliver to the families.
This year, as in previous years, members of the East Lyme auxiliary, which Albrecht belongs to, volunteered to shop for the gifts. The members then gathered one evening in December at a member's home to wrap the gifts. Eventually, members bring the gifts to the agency for distribution.
The program "Polar Express," comes from the book about the power of belief, said Albrecht.
"It's good to see good done," said Albrecht about how her idea grew into the program it is today.
Albrecht said she will continue to participate in the event every year.
"It's a personal reminder of what giving is all about," she said.
Fairfield-Sonn called the program "heart-warming."
She praised the generosity and kindness of the volunteers and sponsors who continue to give even in a tough economy.
"The outpouring is amazing," she added.
Last year, the agency's year-round programs reached approximately 17,000 families and children in Connecticut.