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Despite hardships, organizations seeing increased support this holiday

With so many people struggling this year due to the financial and emotional impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, Maria Nott wasn't sure what to expect for a response to the Norwich Salvation Army's Make a Difference campaign entry in The Day.

But Nott, a case worker with the organization, said the recipient, a recently widowed mother of four, was in joyful tears when she picked up her gifts last week.

"One of the things she said is that she's trying so hard to make this as normal of a Christmas for her kids as she can," she said. "She's so thankful that all these people have come forth, people that she doesn't know and that she hasn't met, that they would do this for her and her family."

In total, community donors contributed about $1,000 in gift cards for groceries and other essentials and enough toys to overfill two contractor bags. Nott said a few donations for the family, including more toys and $200, also came in earlier this week.

"This is what Christmas is all about," she said.

Stonington Human Services Director Leanne Theodore said the response to her agency's Make a Difference campaign was record-breaking, with more than $6,000 in monetary donations and gift cards.

She said the campaign is usually pretty successful but $6,000 is "above and beyond," with nearly 60 donors this year.

"I think sometimes it depends on the family's story and different connections people may feel with different circumstances," she said. "In this situation, we had a young father who has a young son who recently experienced the loss of the son's mother, so that really pulls on people's heartstrings this time of year. Things are hard enough, and then to add that horrible situation to it."

Theodore said Stonington Human Services is serving more than 2,000 families in need, and its other collections were also "massively successful" this year. She said people who are able to give may want to give more to help the increased numbers of people who need it, and donations have come in from outside the greater Stonington community as well.

This year, the Drop-In Learning Center in New London opted to feature a group of underserved people rather than a specific family. Executive Director Reona Dyess said she decided to highlight the needs of the center's teenagers because toy collections and other charity drives tend to focus on younger children.

"Because of the hybrid (learning format), a lot of the middle and high school students, besides doing their homework, they're also supporting their younger siblings," she said. "I wanted to make sure we didn't forget them."

Dyess specifically asked for winter clothing because that's what parents said their teens needed most, and the center received not only pajama pants, jackets and boots but also bikes, skateboards, makeup kits and grocery store gift cards. With donations from the individuals as well as the United Way and Mohegan Sun, she was able to distribute more than 120 gifts for students and their families.

"This was a blessing to the youth of the New London community," she said. "When someone would call and said, 'I need a coat, warm clothes, boots, socks, and holiday gifts,' we were able to provide because of our community support."

a.hutchinson@theday.com

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