Most wonderful time of the year: Season lights up town’s giving spirit
“Once it started snowing, we got a lot of toys in,” said Henry Norley.
The Ridgefield Marine Corps League organizes a massive Toys for Tots effort, benefiting children in 10 towns, and Norley is the Marines’ boss elf.
“The area’s been very generous this year,” he said.
Norley spoke from the Marine Corps League’s small building on Halpin Lane Monday evening, with the month-long effort in its final hectic stages.
“Yesterday, you couldn’t turn around in here, you couldn’t even walk through the hall,” he said.
“It’s still going and it’s going pretty well. We picked up 90% of our boxes Friday and Saturday. We’re sorting and having the charities come by. We’ve had social workers and churches in all week.
“The last car just pulled out, loaded up with toys and a bike,” he said. “They just pulled out and headed back to the church, a French-speaking Baptist Church in Danbury.
“I have a social worker from a school in Danbury coming tomorrow. She just called and said she’s got a new family who lost everything in Puerto Rico in the hurricane — moved up here to stay with relatives, but they have nothing for Christmas.”
Now they will.
How many toys cycle through Ridgefield’s Marine Corps League on their way to needy children?
“We’re at about 32,000 right now, and counting,” Norley said.
Charities and churches distributing the gifts get two toys per child — so that’s 16,000 kids.
The effort serves children in Ridgefield, Redding, Weston, Wilton, Brookfield, Bethel, Danbury, New Fairfield, New Milford, and Newtown.
Ridgefielders support the program, filling boxes at 20 collection stations around town. Local corporations also contribute.
“We start getting calls the beginning of November, people asking for boxes and wanting to be collection points,” Norley said.
“I have close to 20 men and women that help out, with either putting out the boxes or handling our promotions and mailers, and pickup, and helping unpack and sort. It’s been a terrific group,” he said.
“Carol Watson brings in teenagers that belong to clubs in Ridgefield and they help out.”
The Marines’ small building gets filled, and refilled.
“It usually happens three or four times during the cycle — we get so packed, and we call the folks and say, ‘We have toys now, come in and pick up what you need!’
“It’s very rewarding,” Norley said. “Everybody’s nice. Everybody gets the holiday spirit. It gets a little hectic, but it’s always nice.”
In-town distribution of toys often comes in collaboration with the Evelyn C. Peeler Children’s Holiday Gift Fund — which buys clothing for kids and teenagers in town, as well as gift cards for groceries for families.
“Sue Ferguson will call us and send somebody over if they come up short in what they need,” Norley said.
Ferguson’s been involved with the Evelyn Peeler Fund for 22 of its 39 years.
“I raise money through individuals and foundations,” she said. “We buy new clothing for the kids, based on their wishes, from their parents. And then we also use the money to buy Stop & Shop food certificates.
“In the summer, we use whatever money we have left for back-to-school clothes and back-to-school supplies,” Ferguson said. “It’s really a year-round program, but the big one is Christmas.
“The toys are donated through different churches in town — angel tree programs. We don’t pay for those.”
This year the fund is serving 71 children in town, from 33 families.
Cindy Rauscher, another mainstay of the program, “coordinates all the requests for the gifts the kids want,” Ferguson said.
Volunteers do the shopping, working hard to meet the children’s needs and wants — size, color — as shared by the parents.
“I have, like, three shoppers. That’s the heart of it.,” Ferguson said. “I give them the requirements of the families and they just go out and buy, and we pay for it. And everybody gets a Stop & Shop gift card,” she said.
“We spend close to $11,000 — gift cards and clothes.
“And then in the summer we spend about $4,000 on back-to-school clothes and supplies.”
Some groups “adopt” a family — provide funds, get the list, do the shopping.
“That helps reduce our costs,” Ferguson said.
A variety of groups join in the holiday effort, Ferguson said, including churches, Girl Scouts, Jesse Lee School, some foundations, the Woman’s Club, National Charity League, William Pitt Sotheby’s, Reynolds & Rowella, Audrey Road.
“St. Andrew’s, First Congregational, Ridgebury Congregational, Christian Science Church — they do angel trees,” Ferguson said. “Jesse Lee Methodist School, they get gifts for us, toy gifts.”
The Christmas effort starts at a September meeting with the town Social Services Department.
“That’s when we review the families we had last year and see who’s moved and who still needs help, and they will give us names of any new people,” Ferguson said.
“Then in November, the shoppers start shopping. The families fill out a form — we ask them to be as specific as possible about color and size for their kids. And then we start shopping.”
Volunteers and financial donations are welcome. “We’re always looking for help,” Ferguson said.
Donations may be sent to the Evelyn C. Peeler Children’s Holiday Gift Fund, c/o UPS Store, Box 218, 54 Danbury Road, Ridgefield CT 06877.
“The UPS Store gave us a mailbox,” Ferguson said. “We have very minimal expenses — postage, and occasionally boxes. But it’s all volunteer, and 98% or 99% of the funds we raise goes directly to the children.
“It’s a labor of love for me,” Ferguson said.
“We’re all about children — the children we’re helping, that’s our mission.
“When you look around town, it’s such a beautiful town,” Ferguson said. “You don’t realize there are people in the shadows who are hurting, Those are the people we work with — it’s a tough time of year.
Many generous donors collaborate with Tony Phillips and Karen Gaudian of Ridgefield’s Social Services Department.
“The Lions Club and Rotary Club step up every year and ring the bells for Salvation Army, and they’ll raise a couple of thousand dollars doing that. The Salvation Army will turn back around to support Social Services here with about 90% of the funds they raise,” Phillips said.
About 140 to 160 people benefit monthly from locally financed food distributions through the Connecticut Food Bank.
“They had turkeys both for Thanksgiving and for the December distribution,” Phillips said. “We have a local Ridgefield angel donor who does that.”
Another anonymous “angel donor” sponsors an annual shopping expedition for financially pressed senior citizens, with a very generous amount to be spent — “part of it on warm clothing, part of it on food,” Phillips said. This year, 99 people benefited.
The Ridgefield Police Benevolent Association hosts a “Shop With a Cop” program that benefits “one deserving family” each year, said police Capt. Jeff Kreitz.
“Our goal with this program is to make the selected family’s holiday season a little brighter by helping them pay for gifts for their children as well as supplying them with a great holiday meal,” Kreitz said. “Officers from the Ridgefield Police Department will pick up the children in a police car and take them on a shopping spree.
“The PBA would like to thank the community for their donations which were received during the annual PBA fund-raising mailer. Programs like this one would not be possible without the community’s continued generosity and support.”
Tony Phillips said the holiday efforts benefit another group — the folks doing the good work.
“The people ringing the bells — that’s got to be really cold for them, and it’s not so fun, but at the same time there’s a service group that’s together on a common mission,” Phillips said.
“They feel good about their connectedness with their community, or their faith.”