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Working to brighten the holiday for Groton families in need

Groton — Today, hundreds of children in town will open Christmas presents of toys, games and warm pajamas, and families will sit down for holiday meals.

It's the result of a community effort, with staff, volunteers and community members working as part of the Groton Human Services holiday distribution to make sure families in need have a happy holiday.

Between food baskets and frozen turkeys and gifts for children, this year's effort is reaching 420 families on fixed or low income. A total of 468 children are served through the distribution.

Area businesses, community groups, churches, scout troops, schools and individuals donated toys and food, Groton Human Services Director Marge Fondulas said.

Prior to the distribution, families shared gift ideas for their children, so staff could fill the bags with toys suitable for each child, while some people in the community "adopted" a family and bought gifts for them. Ahead of the distribution day, volunteers put together boxes and packed them with food, while the staff assembled bags of toys for the families with children, so they were ready by Dec. 21, the day when the families come to pick them up. Between the holiday distribution and the Thanksgiving distribution, another event held by Groton Human Services, the works starts in October and wraps up at the end of December.

Donated toys, food

In preparation for the holiday distribution, a room at the Groton Human Services building resembled a toy store.

Tables around the room held an array of toys organized by type, including arts and crafts kits, board games and playing cards, puzzles, music sets, dolls and Barbies and related accessories, plush stuffed animals, cars and trucks, basketballs and footballs, and Hatchimals and PAW Patrol toys. Children's pajamas were sorted by size into bins, and books were arranged by type in cardboard boxes. Underneath the tables, large bins held an overflow of toys.

The bike room in the basement had become two bike rooms, with more than 30 brand-new bikes and helmets donated for children.

On the afternoon of Monday, Dec. 10, social workers Lisa Fredsbo and Lisa Carney and financial assistant Heidi McSwain sorted through bags of donated toys dropped off by community members, organizing items on the tables in the toy room. They pored over intake forms to pick gifts for the children in each family and then packed large red and green bags with toys, tied them up and numbered them for each family to be lined up for the day of the distribution.

"It's heartwarming," said Fredsbo, who has been involved with the distribution for 12 years. "It really is. It's exhausting, but it's so rewarding when the day comes and the families see the generosity of others. There's a few good tears shed that day."

Downstairs, Fitch High School students from the Falcon Business Society assembled hundreds of cardboard boxes that another set of volunteers later would fill with food donated by the community.

"I love community service and giving back," said Kyle Thaxton, 16, a junior at Fitch. He said when he was younger, the community gave so much to him and his family through a similar holiday distribution in the area, and now he's able to give in return. He said it feels really good to help others.

As the students worked expeditiously and gave one another encouragement, Yazmyn Beander, 14, a freshman at Fitch, said she's motivated by the thought that she's helping others in need.

"I know all this is going to a good cause, and they need these," she said.

Working together

On the morning of Wednesday, Dec. 19, more than two dozen volunteers, many from local churches, spent the morning filling with food more than 400 boxes lined up on tables in a room in the basement of the Groton Human Services building. They placed assorted items into the boxes, including canned vegetables, boxes of stuffing, mashed potatoes and southwest grain salad, mixes for cake and pancakes, hot chocolate and dinner rolls.

Fondulas thanked them for everything they are doing.

"Thank you for making it a very special day," she told the volunteers as they took a brief mid-morning coffee break.

Christine Wallen, who goes to St. Mary’s Church, is in her 15th year of organizing volunteers with Robin Hollay to help out with the holiday distribution, and the church also holds a monthly food drive to benefit Groton Human Services.

“It’s an opportunity for me to give back,” she said. “It’s something I can do for those in need.”

But it also gives much to the volunteers: “It helps us as volunteers to appreciate what we do have and what we’re able to do for those in need,” Wallen said. “But for the grace of God, I could be on the other side.”

During the morning, volunteers huddled over cardboard boxes, passed items to one another, and chatted or conferred about the placement of food items. Sister RaAnna Dahle, 19, and Sister Emma Woolley, 20, missionaries with The Church of Jesus Chris of Latter-day Saints, sang "Jingle Bells," "Jingle Bell Rock" and "Angels We Have Heard on High," while fellow volunteers joined in singing.

When the work drew to a close, Hollay, who was helping to direct the volunteers with light-hearted humor, took a moment to reflect on their work to pack the boxes with food and take care to neatly place the dinner rolls on top and put the candy cane boxes with the striped candy facing upward. 

Hollay said it's very humbling to see people from all different walks of life and different faiths all working together to put together boxes for people in need — and working so hard to make the boxes look presentable.

The donations that fill the food boxes and the toy bags come from all corners of the community, Fondulas said. To name a few, kindergartners at S.B. Butler Elementary School collected 86 hats, mittens, gloves and scarves, while elementary students there also collected cans of food for the drive. Sacred Heart School donated food, and Fitch students donated food and toys. Stop & Shop donated 300 "Food for Friends" boxes, while Toys R Us, when it was going out of business, gave wrapping paper, toys and bike helmets. An employee of Electric Boat brought 35 turkeys, and the Groton Elks Lodge No. 2163 made a $1,000 donation. In addition, Groton Human Services also has a "Food Locker" account, maintained by Mystic Congregational Church, that it can dip into if it needs to purchase specific items, such as cranberry sauce, for the food baskets.

'Giving and sharing'

On Friday, the day of the holiday distribution, the Groton Human Services building was a hub of activity, as holiday music played and people arriving for the distribution checked in with staff and exchanged holiday greetings with them.

Volunteers carried out brand-new children’s bikes, bags filled with toys, and food boxes and frozen turkeys for the families.

People from the community showed up to assist with the distribution, from staff at the University of Connecticut's Avery Point campus, to Groton Town and Groton City police officers, to Fitch High School students and a middle-school student eager to help out.

Scott Sanford, who volunteers alongside his 14-year-old daughter, Grace, and his wife, Jennifer, who works at Groton Human Services, said the event is about the community coming together to give donations and share them with people in need. He has been volunteering for many years, and his favorite part is watching people’s faces light up as they receive the donations.

“The real essence of Christmas is giving and sharing,” Sanford said.

Ledyard residents Kate and Martin French and their children purchased 10 new children's bikes to donate. They have been volunteering with the event for about five years and forgo giving each other Christmas presents and instead pool the money they would have spent on one another to purchase gifts for families in need. 

“This is our Christmas,” Kate French said. “Giving toys as a family and donating our time together.”

As a staff member asked for a turkey and a large food basket for a client that arrived, her daughter, Cheyenne Holliday, a University of Connecticut student, and another volunteer, Heather Young, immediately sprang into action.

“Absolutely!” Holliday said.

“I got the turkey!” Young said.

Holliday and Young, wearing rain gear, carried out the donations for Sara Dickson on the rainy afternoon. Dickson smiled brightly as the volunteers placed the food and a bag of toys for her family in her car.

Dickson said finances are very tough right now but, thanks to the donations, she will be able to have Christmas dinner with her family and gifts for her daughter's new baby, who will be celebrating her first Christmas. She said Groton Human Services has been doing the distribution for so many years and has helped so many families.

"It's nice to know there are still people out there that are willing to go out of their way to help other families in need," she said.

Fondulas said the volunteers are essential to the holiday distribution.

"We literally could not do it without the help of the volunteers," she said.


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