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Groton office distributes food baskets, toys for nearly 250 families

Groton — In the line of dozens of people outside the town Human Services Department office on Friday, Julia Caban, 59, wiped tears from her eyes.

Her father died on Dec. 5, she couldn’t afford to pay for his funeral and she is raising four grandchildren. She's in emotional pain, she needed help for the holidays and she found some. “They help here a lot,” she said.

It was a sentiment expressed by others in the line: They are grateful for the kindness of the staff and donations by the community.

Groton Human Services Department collected and distributed 500 food baskets on Friday, the maximum it can manage, and 242 bags of toys for families with children.

“They come out and the staff here are so wonderful,” said Scott Martin, 49, who also was in the line. “They care about people. They don’t let people down.”

Toys R Us donated toys to the department throughout the year, Electric Boat gave more than 150 turkeys for the food baskets, and businesses, neighborhood and individuals adopted 64 families, said Heidi McSwain, financial assistant for the Human Services Department.

Some donations were unsolicited. “People came in, literally, (asking) ‘What do you need?'” she said. One couple, Kate and Martin French, gave 10 bicycles, as they annually donate what they'd spend on Christmas every year. State Sen. Heather Somers also brought 10 bikes, McSwain said. Others donated bicycles, as well, bringing the total to 33.

Staff walked among red, green and blue trash bags filled with toys, stacked along the halls and in the human services offices, while counselor Diane Schrage offered pet treats and wrapping paper to people waiting in line.

Outside, Steven Fletcher, 18, a freshman on the University of Connecticut-Avery Point basketball team, carried out boxes of food to cars.

“I just like the feeling that it gives me, just seeing their faces light up. Because you never know people’s situations,” he said.

Tammy Schlapfer, 41, dropped off her children at school before getting to the human services office shortly before it opened at 9 a.m. She started back to work two weeks ago, after having a pacemaker and defibrillator implanted.

She had gone to the hospital with what felt like vertigo, then ended up out of work for two months, she said. She would have made Christmas for her children somehow, even without the assistance of the human services office, she said, but it made it easier this year.

“When you’re a single mom, it’s very hard to say, ‘help me,’” she said. After picking up the toys and food basket, she said she was headed to the doctor and then to work.

Martin French, who volunteered with his wife, Kate, and their two children, said Friday’s donations ultimately were about dignity. They were about allowing others to celebrate with friends and family, regardless of their financial circumstances, without having to worry about whether they’ll have enough, he said.

Caban said her grandchildren, ages 11, 9, 8 and 7, didn’t ask for anything in particular for the holidays. They just wanted to find presents under the tree and open them, she said.

“They’re pieces of love,” she said. “They’re always happy. They’re happy kids, thank God.”


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