‘A lot of work, but a lot of fun’

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Normally, an ambulance is used to transport sick or injured people, but last Friday, a Westbrook ambulance left City Hall with a much happier cargo – bags of gifts for Santa to bring to some of the city’s underprivileged children and families.

The toys and gift cards, some donated by residents and the balance purchased by city employees with donated money, are the payoff for Westbrook’s Toys for Kids Christmas program, which brings holiday gifts to needy families in the city.

Crystal Carter, a customer service representative at Westbrook City Hall, helped organize the Toys for Kids donations this year, and she said that the program brought Christmas gifts to 54 families in the city.

The gifts were packed in black, plastic trash bags, bedecked with festive holiday bows and ribbons. While trash bags aren’t the most festive of carriers, Carter said that they are actually ideal, because then kids can’t see the unwrapped gifts inside. The city doesn’t wrap the gifts, Carter said, leaving it up to the parents.

“Parents do their own thing for Christmas,” she said.

Carter said she didn’t have an exact count on how much was donated. Looking around at the piles of black bags filled with gifts on the second floor of City Hall, she said they had “a lot.”

“We have had several people who have made donations,” Carter said, saying that some people who didn’t have toys to donate made cash donations so staff could purchase the new toys.

One group that made a significant donation to the cause this season were residents who set up what they called a “Drive-By Gift Tree” at their home on Rochester Street. The residents, Curtis Porter, Sandy Grady and Barbara Hester, put the tree up and solicited donations of toys and other gifts for the city’s Toys for Kids program.

“We are just regular, middle-class folks who live here, and we thought if we could help out (and) be a blessing to other people, then we would do that,” Porter said earlier this month. “We put the tree up and decided to donate whatever we could collect.”

Their efforts certainly paid off. Hester, Grady and Porter had more than 50 people make donations to their Drive-By Gift Tree, and on Dec. 20, the trio delivered eight bags, totaling more than 70 gifts and $100 in gift cards to various stores.

While the bulk of the families being helped through the program picked up their gifts at City Hall prior to Christmas, 20 families got a special visitor on Dec. 22, as the Westbrook Fire Department escorted Santa Claus around the city to make the big deliveries.

On Friday, Capt. Randy Mitchell of the Westbrook Fire Department brought an ambulance to City Hall to pick up the bags for Santa. Mitchell said he enjoys helping out with the Toys for Kids program.

“It’s a great feeling,” he said. “I’ve been with the department for 20 years and we’ve been doing it ever since I got on (the department).”

Carter, who said she loves Christmas, said she likes to know that through this program, she is helping people have a merry Christmas.

“You get a warm and fuzzy feeling helping people out,” she said.

“It’s just one way to give back to the community,” Mitchell added. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun.”

Crystal Carter, a customer service representative at Westbrook City Hall, helps Arty Ledoux, the deputy director of the Westbrook Public Services department, load bags of gifts for the city’s Toys for Kids program into the back of an ambulance on Dec. 21.   

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