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Holiday distribution draws an overflow crowd in Groton

By Deborah Straszheim

Publication: The Day

Published December 21. 2013 4:00AM   Updated December 21. 2013 11:56PM
Human services reaches its limit of 500 families quickly

Groton - People lined up 40 deep at Groton Human Services Friday, then jammed the lobby as social workers and volunteers carried out bags of toys and loaded boxes of food into cars for 500 families, the maximum it could handle.

Human services reached its limit of 500 recipients for holiday aid one week before Thanksgiving, and began referring families to local churches for holiday meals and to another program for toys.

"It was very sad to turn anyone away. It really affected the staff here," said Diane Schrage, a Groton counselor.

The town's human services director, Marge Fondulas, said the number of people the town can help is limited by space constraints and the number of staff needed to process applications, including verifying incomes.

Fondulas said about 40 families were referred elsewhere.

Katie Penman, 55, arrived early on Friday and held her 3-week-old granddaughter as she waited for the doors to open. Penman said she felt badly for those who had to go elsewhere.

"If it weren't for this, people wouldn't have (gifts), and they're gracious enough to give a kid a toy for Christmas and food and clothes," she said.

Penman has one son and four daughters, one of whom recently had a baby and is living with her.

"My girls, they're struggling, too," Penman said. "Everybody's struggling."

The gifts, including 43 bicycles, came from general donations, local agencies and "angel trees" set up in town departments and area businesses.

Monsanto of Mystic gave 23 bicycles. "That's Sew Debbie" in Groton set up a gift tree, and customers donated 200 presents.

Forty-four businesses, churches and individuals offered to "adopt" 80 families and buy presents. Five staff members then packed 300 bags of toys.

"You couldn't even walk in our hallways," Schrage said.

Children received three to four gifts each, along with hats and mittens. Red, green and blue bags filled with unwrapped toys lay piled in the halls behind social workers checking people in.

"I don't think I've ever seen it this crowded," said Rick Sweet, 64.

Outside, volunteers loaded boxes filled with canned vegetables, fruits, stuffing, rolls, soup and pasta into cars. Families also received a turkey or voucher to pick up one and a dessert.

Efrain Hernandez, 19, worked the overnight security shift at Mohegan Sun, then stopped with his wife to pick up gifts for their son, who is 2. Hernandez said he's gotten a raise from the starting wage of $9.87 per hour, but it's still harder to live than he realized.

"It definitely opens your eyes when you realize how much you make and how fast the money goes," he said. "Especially when you need something."

Ava Marquand, 27, has three sons, ages 6, 2 and 3 months. Her husband works as assistant manager at Family Dollar and she sold Avon for four years, which helped.

If she didn't have the holiday program, she said she'd get each child one gift. But she wanted them to have a couple of more presents since they believe in Santa.

"My 6-year-old wants everything under the sun," she said, but added, "If you get him a puzzle, he jumps for joy. ... I love that about him."

On Friday morning, she said he noticed as he got on the school bus that she was leaving the house, too.

He asked where she was going.

She said she told him, "I'm going to see Santa."


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