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Montville - Last Tuesday, a mother and her daughter surveyed the kitchen table they had covered with a heavy winter coat, warm blankets, newly purchased shirts, a winter hat and ChapStick.
Lizz Adams and her adult daughter, Colleen Rix, weren't preparing for the upcoming winter. As they do every month, they were organizing donations to give to a Montville resident in need. And, as every month, they weren't exactly sure whom the items were going to.
"(We have) no idea who they are. No names, nothing," said Rix.
In January, Adams and Rix formed a group they call We Help Others, or W.H.O. They were inspired by the "Random Acts of Kindness" and "Pay It Forward" movements they saw during the holidays and thought it would be nice to do something along those lines year-round for a Montville resident.
So the two women approached Montville Social Services Director Kathleen Doherty-Peck and her assistant Robin Washington to ask whom they could help. Doherty-Peck and Washington are strict about the confidentiality of their clients. Every month they work together to choose a local family or individual in need and then send details about the people's needs - but not their names or any identifying information - to W.H.O.
Adams and Rix just refer to the recipients by their month - "the July family," for instance - as they organize the donations.
Each month, Adams and Rix post the information they receive from Social Services to a Facebook group they created. Then teachers and town councilors, mothers and fathers and single people, even people living out of state with a connection to Montville, read and respond.
When they started the project in January, it was just three of them putting together a basket - Adams, Rix and a longtime friend of Adams'. Then they started the Facebook group and began adding friends who had expressed interest. Now W.H.O.'s page has 256 members.
People can send donations to W.H.O. through the mail or drop them off with one of the women. Adams and Rix encourage potential donors to wait for a case that really touches them rather than donating every single month. One woman, for instance, was a cancer survivor and took particular interest when one of the recipients was going through chemotherapy. She decided to send things that helped her during that process, such as hard candies.
Still, there are people who reply every month. One man gives $100 for each recipient, Adams said. Another person she's never met sends something from Wallingford for every basket.
Here is what Adams and Rix know about September: He is a man. He is single. He is a Montville resident who pays rent on a week-to-week basis and is in a danger of becoming homeless. He has no valid ID, making getting employment difficult, but is working with Montville social services to get one. He has no car, so he walks from Montville to New London and Norwich looking for work.
And they know he wears a size 13 shoe. ("I had to be sneaky to get that out of him," Washington wrote on the Facebook group.)
They don't know his age, race, personality or background, but they know the details necessary to make a difference in his life.
Adams and Rix explained that they try to think about the people recommended by social services throughout the month, trying to think of the little things that might help. When thinking about September, for instance, they realized some Blistex would probably be welcome with the coming winter and some candy might make a nice little surprise.
"We don't know them, but we kind of form a relationship with them and they don't even know it," said Adams.
W.H.O. takes any cash donations it receives and puts the money onto a Visa gift card for the basket recipient. In September, however, they asked if anyone had "Kohl's cash" - store credit given to customers who spend a certain amount of money in the department store - that they could combine with their coupons to get some clothing for the man.
They received $30 in Kohl's cash from a W.H.O. member, which they combined with their own discounts to purchase some collared shirts September could wear to interviews. Rix also picked up a decent wallet, thinking it was just the kind of small thing a struggling man might appreciate.
Some months are bigger than others for W.H.O. In April, they were told about an expectant mother who had recently moved to Montville. Her husband was in the military, they were informed, and she didn't know anyone in the area and had nothing for the baby.
So Adams and Rix put together a large, anonymous baby shower. Unlike in other months, those donating got together in person, bringing their donations with them. They covered tables in Fair Oaks School with diapers, hand-knit baby clothing, toys, hygiene products, blankets. Someone even brought a stroller.
Washington stuffed all the items into her car and drove it out to the woman, later posting to the Facebook group to say, "I hope you all realize that you have changed her life, not only with all of the beautiful gifts, but with a true sense of belonging to a community of very generous and compassionate people."
September was a more typical donation size - a new backpack and an additional bag stuffed with gifts. W.H.O. members donate the backpack, a thick Dickies coat, new interview clothes, a wallet, new sneakers, 10 rides' worth of SEAT bus tickets, candy, Blistex, a winter hat, fleece blankets, socks, a McDonalds gift card and $275 - more than enough for a month's rent - on a Visa gift card. W.H.O. members also reached out to social services to offer a few odd jobs, and one said she would donate her bike if the recipient would like it (it's a purple women's bike.)
Rix put the finishing touches on the donation by attaching a curly mass of ribbons to the handles of the bag and writing the gift card.
"You know when I do it, it always comes out as a poem," Rix warned her mother before signing the card with a note that ended, "(As you) continue to do what you do, know that we care for you."
Rather than putting individual names on the card, the group signs it "Who cares? We do."
September was "overjoyed" when he received the donations at the end of last week, said Doherty-Peck. And when she mentioned the debit card, the man looked at her in disbelief.
"The W.H.O. group is making a real difference in people's lives," said Doherty-Peck. "(The recipients') needs are so extremely different … but what they did for each of those families was so incredible."