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Area charities see success during holiday season

Volunteers work together to tape any tears in the bags that hold two boxes of gifts  for underprivileged children. Two boxes are provided: one with necessities, like clothing and the other with desired extras, like toys. Over 2500 children in the state have gifts coming their way thanks to Operation Santa Claus, the annual program run by current and retired members of the State Employees' Association Local 1984. The program is in its 52nd year. Department of Health and Human Services case workers from around the state help identify the children in need and volunteers secure matching sponsors and donations for the children. Sponsors can be individuals, organizations or companies. A group from Bishop Brady School was able to sponsor 140 youths this year. Deliveries are helped by the New Hampshire National Guard who joins the operation every year to help pack and transport the gifts to their respective locations, from Nashua to Berlin and Keene to Portsmouth. "It's really a sight to see all these people get together to get presents to the kids," said Linda Farrell, the chairperson for the Operation Santa committee. 

(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff)

Volunteers work together to tape any tears in the bags that hold two boxes of gifts for underprivileged children. Two boxes are provided: one with necessities, like clothing and the other with desired extras, like toys. Over 2500 children in the state have gifts coming their way thanks to Operation Santa Claus, the annual program run by current and retired members of the State Employees' Association Local 1984. The program is in its 52nd year. Department of Health and Human Services case workers from around the state help identify the children in need and volunteers secure matching sponsors and donations for the children. Sponsors can be individuals, organizations or companies. A group from Bishop Brady School was able to sponsor 140 youths this year. Deliveries are helped by the New Hampshire National Guard who joins the operation every year to help pack and transport the gifts to their respective locations, from Nashua to Berlin and Keene to Portsmouth. "It's really a sight to see all these people get together to get presents to the kids," said Linda Farrell, the chairperson for the Operation Santa committee. (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor Staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

Families in need around Concord ate traditional Christmas dinners, got new coats and mittens and opened plenty of toys Tuesday, all thanks to the work of local charities, most of which fared just as well as or better than previous years this holiday season.

“It’s always heartwarming to see the number of people that want to give in some way,” said Maria Manus Painchaud, chairwoman of the Capital Region Food Program’s Christmas food basket program.

The Capital Region Food Program is one of several major charities in the area that puts together special holiday programs, focusing on giving food and gifts to children and families. A handful of those groups told the Monitor they saw an increase in need this season, but an increase in donations and volunteers as well. And although some charities met difficulties, such as finding people to buy gifts for teenagers, businesses and individuals swept in to answer final calls for donations in time for Christmas.

For its holiday food basket program, Painchaud said her group put together baskets for about 2,500 families in Concord and neighboring communities. That’s up by about 200 families from previous years, she said. Each family gets two food baskets, one with a traditional Christmas meal and the other with foods such as peanut butter and tuna to feed the family for the next two weeks.

A lot of factors could have contributed to this year’s increase of families in need, Painchaud said. Although the economy is improving, many families just need a final boost at the end of the year to allow them to start next year on steady footing, she said.

But the number of volunteers is also increasing. About five years ago the charity had somewhere around 800 volunteers during the holiday season, she said, and this year there were almost 1,100.

In addition to running food drives, charities focused on gift giving during the holiday season.

The Salvation Army of Concord was able to provide more than 4,000 items to families and children in need, and raised $80,000 from red kettles across Concord. That fell just shy of the organization’s goal of $85,000, but Major Jerry Stinson was still proud of the effort.

“It was an incredible Christmas season,” he said.

This was Stinson’s first year at the Concord Salvation Army. He said he was impressed and amazed by the number of people willing to help out the community, even if they were struggling to get by themselves. The entire gym and chapel of the building was filled with coats, gloves, mittens and toys.

“We do need money to make it work, but this season was about people caring for people. Regardless of whether you had money or you didn’t have money, it was about people caring for people, and that’s what I walked away with this Christmas,” he said.

Both The Salvation Army and Friends of Forgotten Children, a food pantry that also does a holiday gift drive, did feel like they were facing a crunch at certain points during their gift drives. In many cases businesses stepped in to help, and the groups were able to provide for everyone in need. Lincoln Financial, for example, sponsored 80 children from the Friends of Forgotten Children drive, said Cheryl Correllus, the program’s director.

It was difficult this year to find sponsors for teenagers, because they are harder to buy for than young kids, she said. People and groups who sponsored teens often bought gift cards the teenagers can choose how to spend.

In the few days after Christmas, Correllus has noticed a major difference: The charity is getting thank-you notes from some of the families. Families were writing that “they didn’t know what they could do without us, (or) they cried when they opened their bags,” Correllus said.

The notes are rewarding for the group of about 10 volunteers who worked until 1 a.m. on multiple nights bagging the presents.

Friends of Forgotten Children also has winter jackets to give away, and anyone in need can contact the group at the number provided on its website.

Operation Santa Claus, a gift-giving operation by the State Employees’ Association of New Hampshire, gave presents this year to more than 600 children in the Concord area and a total of more than 2,500 across the state, said Beth D’Ovidio, communications administrator for the union.

Groups of state employees participate individually, by department or by office to sponsor children. Non-state employees can also sponsor children through the program. Bishop Brady High School, for example, bought gifts for 140 children, she said. Each child receives two boxes worth of gifts. The union fundraises throughout the year to sponsor any extra children.

This year’s committee had 18 members, more than in years past, D’Ovidio said.

And although this Christmas just ended, preparations for next year’s Operation Santa Claus will soon be under way. The board will meet in January to discuss this year’s successes and places for improvement, and the organization accepts donations all year long.

For all of the volunteers and donors to this project and all of the others, knowing how many children woke up happy on Christmas morning makes the effort worth it.

“It really gives you a great sense of fulfillment because you know that these are children whose lives are difficult and without the program they might not have anything on Christmas morning or during the holidays,” she said. “You’re paying it forward because so many of us are blessed and we don’t realize or think about those who are not, and these are children who are in their situations not through their own doing.”

How you can help

∎ The Salvation Army of Concord is located at 58 Clinton St. More information on volunteering is available by visiting, calling 225-5586 or visiting the website at use.salvationarmy.org/concord.

∎ Friends of Forgotten Children has winter coats to give away to people in need. More information about that and volunteering is available at friends-of-forgotten-children.org/.

∎ Operation Santa Claus accepts donations year round, and more information is available at seiu1984.org/category/operation-santa-claus/.

∎ The Capital Region Food Program is looking for volunteers and donations all year, and more information is available at capitalregionfoodprogram.org/.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @kronayne.)

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