Mystic tree farm helping to make kids' Christmas wishes come true
Mystic — Dozens of wooden Christmas trees, painted with stripes, light bulbs and garland, stand among evergreen trees at Yetter Road Tree Farm, a 14-acre tree farm in Mystic.
The painted trees are new this year and represent an effort to provide 50 children with Christmas gifts, as a contribution toward the Groton Human Services annual Adopt-A-Family program.
Tom and Pantea Umrysz of Yetter Road Tree Farm, who also run a painting company, were looking for a way to give back after the coronavirus pandemic, when they called the town and learned about the Adopt-A-Family program and decided to take on 17 of the families.
The idea is that visitors to the tree farm, some who have been coming there since it first opened and now are bringing their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, can not only stop by for a tree but also sponsor a child or family for the holidays.
"It also gives people an opportunity to give back," Tom said.
The farm created laminated ornaments with the Christmas wishes of each child and instructions on how to give. People who wish to donate to a child or a whole family can then bring back unwrapped gifts, with the ornament attached as a gift tag, to the farm so the farm can deliver them to Groton Human Services on Dec. 13, they said. People are asked to return the gifts as soon as they can, and if any children are not sponsored, the farm will take on that responsibility.
People also can make a monetary donation to a family.
Pantea and Tom said they especially want to give back after receiving the support of the community when Pantea went into preterm labor in March 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic.
Pantea said she had her daughter at 24 weeks, and her daughter weighed 1.4 pounds when she was born. The family spent 137 days at Yale's newborn intensive care unit, where Tom and Pantea could not see their daughter together, and Tom was limited to visiting two days a week and Pantea, five.
Pantea wasn't able to have a baby shower, but family members, friends and community members stepped up to help, from providing supplies to pitching in for a gift card for gas.
"It was the support," Pantea said. "It was the phone calls. It was the cry sessions. It was just bringing a warm meal."
"Everyone just helped in different ways, and that meant so much to us, and she’s a miracle," she added. Today, their daughter, Ariya is 20 months old, and they also have a 6-month-old son, Jackson, and the couple plans to renovate a home next door to the farm for their family.
Pantea said there isn't a single person that she's spoken to that hasn't experienced their own challenges during the pandemic, whether it's the loss of a family member, going through personal struggles, losing a job, or the impact on parents, especially single parents, who had their children at home while balancing other responsibilities, such as work.
Pantea thought it would be amazing to do something to help children, who were particularly hard hit during the pandemic, and put a smile on their face. She said the trees represent the spirit of the season: "This is what it's all about. It's about showing how strong our community is. It's about love, joy and giving back."
Local artist Krista Stanowicz pitched in on short notice to paint the designs on the trees, Pantea said. "This was a true community effort from everybody who works here."
Tom and Pantea hope the Adopt-A-Family initiative will be an annual, growing tradition on the farm, which is owned by Tom's father and Pantea's father-in-law, Lee Umrysz, and was founded by Tom's grandparents, Irene and John Umrysz. The farm officially opened in 1974.
Janiese Schroeder was assembling wreaths Tuesday in the farm's shop — which is named Dina's Shoppe in memory of Tom's mother — where local goods, including honey, soap and ornaments, were on sale. She said she already has signed up her sister and mother to donate to the Adopt-A-Family program. She said her 11-year-old daughter, Amaiya Fongemie, who has made items for the shop, has made her particularly want to give to others.
"Ever since having a kid, I just feel like I always want to help people out," Schroeder said.
Caitlin Cook, Tom's cousin who also works there and whose mother, Julie, helps coordinate the shop, said that last year when masks were mandated and life was so different, people were so happy to come to the shop and be around people, while still social distancing.
"The typical crew that comes here, they're always so giving," Cook said.
Groton's holiday distribution
The Adopt-A-Family program is part of Groton Human Services' annual holiday distribution program, which typically helps about 500 families. The agency this year is holding both its annual Thanksgiving distribution, which took place last week, and the annual holiday distribution, which is scheduled for Dec. 17, "in as safe of a manner as possible during the ongoing pandemic," agency social worker Lisa Fredsbo said.
Families in need, who signed up for the holiday distribution, will receive gift cards to local grocery stores to purchase a holiday meal. Last year, the department modified its distribution due to the pandemic and provided gift cards so families could purchase the meal and toys. This year, the department is bringing back the tradition of providing toys for children ages 12 and under.
Several businesses, organizations, groups and individuals are donating gift cards, as well as toys for the distributions, Fredsbo said. A few local businesses — such as Yetter Road Tree Farm — have taken lists and made tags to allow community members to participate in donating for the holiday season.
People wishing to donate to Groton Human Services can drop off new unwrapped toys, nonperishable food or gift cards, to local grocery stores and stores like Walmart and Target, to the department at 2 Fort Hill Road, Groton, which typically is open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. The department is asking for all donations to be dropped off no later than Dec. 10.
"Despite the changes in processes that resulted due to the pandemic, the Groton community continuously expresses their undeniable gratitude for the help and support around the holidays," social worker Kim Gordy said.
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