The need for help at the holidays is higher than ever across the Northeast Kingdom and the North Country, nonprofits scrambling to meet spiking demand report, with no sign of slowing during the pandemic crisis.
But how to deliver some of that help is proving challenging in the fast-changing environment of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Several local programs continue to work hard to meet the needs, from food to holiday gift donations. They rely on generous donations from local businesses and citizens to help them meet the demand.
The Santa Fund has helped deliver holiday joy to hundreds of local children and families for generations through a partnership begun decades ago by the St. Johnsbury Fire Department and The Caledonian-Record Publishing Company.
This year will be no exception, and donations are coming in, but how to get them to people will be a major challenge amid the ongoing pandemic, said St. Johnsbury Fire Chief Jon Bouffard.
Bouffard said the focus might be on how the fire department can get food to people and less focus on the toys, but it’s still not certain how the Santa Fund will operate this year.
“We’re trying to build out a few different possibilities so that we have a plan in case something changes,” said Bouffard on Tuesday.
He said the department has been looking at a touchless delivery option or a pickup event, whether a building or a parking lot where people would drive up and be handed their bundles. “They would drive up, open their trunks, tell us their name, and go.”
Gift donations are still being accepted, with items left in the municipal building lobby that houses the police and fire departments on Main Street. People can drop them off and ring the buzzer, then staff come down and collect them.
All toys and donations will be sanitized, and the department is looking for a local business to help with that process, to be sure that the gifts are safe to be distributed.
“That’s certainly a quest that we’re on as well, just so we can make sure everything is clean,” said Bouffard. “We don’t want to accept stuff into the house and then not clean it. I know it’s no different than going to the store and picking something out and bringing it home, but if we’re hyper-vigilant, we won’t be part of the problem, and we can be part of the solution.”
New toys and monetary donations are being accepted at the fire department to purchase food and toys.
A total of 550 food boxes have been requested.
Financial contributions can also be made to the Santa Fund account at Passumpsic Bank.
Bouffard said, “Historically White Market has been very good with helping Capt. (Mike) Pelow with his quest to make sure we have what we need.”
“The other piece we’re looking at is do we do gift cards instead?” said Bouffard. “Obviously for the kids, they’re not going to want a gift card to White Market for food, but how do we play that as well, so we can maybe help the community at the same time.”
He said he knows the toys are a big part of the Santa Fund, with the fire department staff making and repairing toys back during the Great Depression, and it’s hoped that the toy piece will be able to happen again. The delivery process is a major challenge, Bouffard said, “Right now the delivery mechanism is dwindling, how do we do this with minimal volunteers?”
“Santa Fund look is going to look different, but we don’t know what it’s going to look like depending on what the governor’s orders are at that time. The way the cases keep climbing … we’re all brainstorming ideas on how we can make this fly forward,” said Bouffard.
Bouffard said, “The thoughts are, can we do touchless delivery? Can we do delivery as they did for the food up at the airport for the state where we do a pick-up event, and only take special cases for deliveries where people can’t get out; they’re homebound. And unfortunately, we’ve had experiences with leaving things on porches and having them disappear … we don’t necessarily want to knock on doors and leave.”
“We’re really challenged with Santa Fund this year; the guys and I are asking how do we do this and not get a bigger problem in play; we don’t want it to be that two weeks from Christmas we have a huge outbreak in St. Johnsbury or that we carry the disease from place to place to place … I have the faith my guys will keep everyone safe, they know how to do that,” said Bouffard. “The other challenge is toys; in other years, we’ve gotten all these donations of toys, but we’ve still had to purchase toys to supplement, and with the restrictions on non-essential travel, where do we purchase our toys?”
H.O.P.E., Faith In Action
At Helping Other People Everyday, better known as H.O.P.E., located on Church Street in Lyndonville, manager Jaime Brown reports that “H.O.P.E. will again be partnering with surrounding agencies to fulfill Christmas wishes this year.”
At H.O.P.E., there is an Angel Tree, and people can be assigned someone to shop for and will be told their age and gender, and they can drop off gifts for the person they choose, said founder and executive director, Jodi Wheeler. H.O.P.E. is only open by appointment right now; call 626-3228 to find out how to help.
“H.O.P.E.’s primary focus will be on crisis/emergencies (homeless and families residing in shelters, etc.),” said Brown. “Our yearly boxes will be handled as follows: Faith in Action will be handling the elderly stockings; Santa Fund, Toys for Tots, and Hand to Hand will be handling those who need extra help this Christmas.”
Brown said, “We are very excited to work in conjunction with other agencies so that more people will be able to get their needs met.”
Faith in Action Executive Director Cynthia Stuart said, “Faith in Action is preparing gift bags for 200 seniors in the area. If people would like to donate, they can call Faith in Action at 626-1212.”
In St. Johnsbury, Kingdom Community Services (KCS) runs its annual Christmas Co-op program, where donations are accepted, and holiday gift packages are delivered to young people, those with disabilities, and the elderly, through the volunteer program.
The website for the program notes, “Started over 30 years ago by Ramona (Angel) Letourneau, Christmas Co-op became a KCS program over 20 years ago.”
“Angel and KCS work in collaboration with schools and agencies to identify gift recipients. Our faith communities, St. Johnsbury Academy, and neighbors like you are the gift-giver,” the website notes. “Your monetary donation to KCS helps us purchase a gift that is delivered by a volunteer to the recipient at Christmas.”
Donations may be made online at kingdomcommunityservices.org.
Littleton Parks and Rec Toy Drive
This year, the Littleton Parks and Recreation Department is partnering with Toys for Tots to ensure that local kids have new toys for the holidays.
Chris Wilkins, director of the department, said, “Due to the pandemic, we’re not running programs right now, and there is a need, so this is a great way for us to keep in touch with our families. It’s been really nice to let people know even though we’re not running programming; the department is still really pivotal in helping everyone this holiday season.”
Wilkins said to call him at 603-575-9170 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
“We do not require any financial information; we know that it’s a hard year, and we know that people need help,” said Wilkins.
The effort is affiliated with the Marine Corps 501 (c) (3) Toys For Tots program.
Donations can be made at boxes all over Littleton. There are about 25 locations where a new, unwrapped toy can be dropped off. The toy drive ends on Dec. 4.
The toys will be given out between Dec. 10 and 23, said Wilkins. A staff member will be there to help; the process is confidential. “I want people to reach out; that’s why we’re here; this is about the kids. We want to make sure every kid has a warm holiday and is feeling the love, and that’s the message we want to get out this year,” said Wilkins.
Other North Country Agencies Providing Holiday Help
Another charitable organization accepting help this holiday to do its outreach is the Pathways Pregnancy Care Center in Littleton.
Executive Director Angel Marshall said, “Christmas Connections has 159 children signed up for gifts this year. We did have to stop taking applications early as we want to make sure we can get donors for the tags we have. Toys, hats & gloves, socks, gift cards, and monetary donations” are all still being accepted.
“We will be able to help extra households with assistance from the community. Monetary donations can be cash or checks made out to the Bridge Outreach Center with Christmas Connections in the memo line,” said Marshall. “We would greatly appreciate any help.” Marshall can be reached at 603-444-3991.
Catholic Charities of New Hampshire in Littleton every year works hard to meet the needs of those who need a hand during the holiday season. The agency accepts monetary donations, and people can direct their pledges to the local region, specifying the Littleton office, for example, said Michael McDonough, a spokesman for the organization.
Make a gift online at www.cc-nh.org/donate or mail your gift to Catholic Charities NH; Department D, Box 9510; Manchester, NH 03108. Those needing help can find assistance through Catholic Charities NH through the Littleton office by contacting 603-444-7727 or visit www.cc-nh.org/contact-us.