WEST WARWICK — Every December, the Christmas Is organization strives to ensure the holidays are bright for hundreds of families. As a nonprofit, it relies on the unwavering generosity of others to be able to purchase thousands of toys for West Warwick's children in need.
Raising funds in the midst of a global pandemic has been tough, however, and the need this year among local families is “over and above” what it usually is, said Debbie Ware, president of Christmas Is.
“People need help, so we’re just trying to provide it,” Ware said Thursday, standing outside the West Warwick Police Department after being given a check from the police union for $1,000.
Every year, the West Warwick Fire Department donates the proceeds from its annual “Fill the Boot” drive to Christmas Is — in 2019, the department handed over a check for $13,500 to the organization; over the last couple of decades, it’s contributed more than $200,000 toward the cause.
But this year, amid health and safety concerns and virus restrictions, the firefighters couldn’t hold their drive. So the police stepped in to help.
The firefighters were disappointed that they couldn’t provide their usual donation, said Maj. Ernest Lavigne, West Warwick’s acting police chief. But the police department is always happy to pitch in when it can, he said, especially when the cause involves helping children.
“The men of the fire department, they’re like our brothers, so when they weren’t able to provide a service we wanted to help — even a little bit,” Lavigne said. “Those guys are fantastic with giving back to the community, so we wanted to be able to step in and help them help Christmas Is.”
In addition to the firefighters’ annual donation, funds for Christmas Is are raised each year through various fundraisers, like steak dinners and wine and beer tasting events.
“And all the money, 100 percent of it, goes to the kids,” Ware said.
Founded in 1979, Christmas Is honors its mission of helping out local families in need by providing children's gifts each December to families in West Warwick. As of Thursday, more than 360 families with some 770 kids between them had signed up to receive gifts from the organization this holiday season.
The organization served 411 families last year. And with a week left for families to sign up, Ware said she anticipates easily surpassing that in 2020.
Luckily, the organization most years is able to save some money.
“And thank God we did,” Ware said. “We had a little bit of money left over — as much as we can for a nonprofit — but this year we’ve spent quite a bit of it.”
Not only has she received fewer donations this year, Ware has also had to spend more on the toys, themselves.
Ware usually spends the entire year accumulating toys, buying items as they go on sale and then storing them in the senior center's basement. But because she couldn’t shop during much of the year, Ware has had to buy toys when and where she can, and has missed out on the sale prices that she typically scopes out.
And while fundraising and gift buying look different this year, so will the Christmas Is toy distribution event.
Typically, parents and guardians are invited into the Senior and Community Center on the Saturday before Christmas to “shop” from tables set up with all kinds of toys.
Because of the risk of virus transmission, however, the organization this year is unable to hold that event. Ware also needed to find someplace other than the senior center from which to give out the toys.
With help from nearly 40 volunteers, including local police and firefighters, Ware recently moved all of the toys — thousands of them — from the senior center, where they’d been stored, to Lil' Rhody Storage on Pulaski Street, where the distribution event will take place on Dec. 19.
Families will drive to the storage unit, where volunteers will place into their trunks pre-packed bags of gifts, arranged based on age group.
West Warwick Police Capt. Tony Bettencourt, whose idea it was to give the donation, lauded Ware for her tireless dedication to the Christmas Is organization.
“She’s like the backbone of it,” said Bettencourt, who said he’s also grateful for the support given to the police by AJ’s, where Ware has worked for some 30 years.
Bettencourt recalled being called to a residence one year, and on arrival seeing a Christmas tree with no gifts beneath it. The children at the home told the officers that their mom said Santa wouldn’t be coming that year.
“We left, I went and saw [Ware], and within about 15, 20 minutes we had a car full of gifts,” Bettencourt remembered. "We brought them right over to the house and presented them."
Ware has been volunteering with the Christmas Is organization for 27 years. It’s a lot of work, she said, but she enjoys it.
“It gives you a good feeling,” she said. “If everybody gives a little, we can help out a lot of kids.”
Those interested in making a donation to the organization can make out a check to "Christmas Is" and send it to the West Warwick Senior Center, 145 Washington St., West Warwick, 02893.