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New London — After just one peek inside the red bag she'd just chosen, 3-year-old Madison Fratus declared her delight.
"It's a game. We can play it," she said, after she and her 5-year-old sister Keira visited with Santa in the cafeteria at Harbor School. As Madison lifted her Lalaloopsy game out of the bag, Keira checked out the Barbie set and stuffed dog inside her bag.
"Did you say thank you?" asked their mother, Darby Fratus, one of the 800 Lawrence + Memorial Hospital nurses and technicians who've not been on the job or depositing paychecks in the bank since the four-day strike started Nov. 27 followed by a lockout that began Nov. 30. The hospital announced Tuesday evening that it will lift the lockout on Thursday.
Fratus and her daughters were among more than 100 nurses, technicians and their children who came to the former school on a snowy Tuesday afternoon to see Santa, also known as Don Dickens of Stonington, father of one of the technicians. After marching behind Santa from their picket line outside the hospital a block away, the nurses, technicians and their children turned their attention away from the strife of the past three weeks to the happier pursuits of the holidays laid out for them at the school.
Anita Swol and three of her fellow Emergency Department nurses organized the event, collecting gifts for the children of union members from the United Labor Agency, New London firefighters and each other.
"We're giving two or three gifts to each child," Swol said, who wiped tears away as she watched the children pick out their gifts. "The generosity was overwhelming. Why should the kids not have gifts for Christmas?"
Amy Blackwood, executive director of the labor agency, said 700 bags with toys were brought to the school. AFT Connecticut, the union that represents the nurses and technicians, is a member of the statewide labor agency.
"We picked out as many as we can that are union made and Connecticut made," she said. "We were happy to help."
As Burl Ives' "Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas" played over the speaker system, children feasted on Christmas cookies and hot chocolate, and their parents welcomed the respite from concerns over their jobs and unpaid bills.
"It's been three weeks we've been dealing with this," said Jill Simmons, a registered nurse, who came to the event with her husband Corey Freeto and their 17-month-old daughter Paige. "I've had to apply for state assistance for the first time. We got a donated Christmas tree, and the Waterford food pantry has been great, too."
Another nurse, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Cindy, said she's been trying to keep the hardships of the past three weeks in perspective.
"It's hard, but there are other people worse off than we are," she said, waiting in line for gifts and a visit with Santa with her 11-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son. "Sometimes you have to teach your kids a lesson that you have to stand up for what you believe in."