John Clark here, bringing you to Harland, Maine. Snow came today, giving our town a fresh clean look. Real wreaths with lights swing from utility poles all over town, hung up and plugged in by the town crew last Friday. A big, well lighted Christmas tree greets folks from the bandstand by the Bangor Savings branch at the intersection of Elm and Main Streets. On the corner right behind it, Mr. LeCourt who is regularly mistaken for me (or vice versa) waves at almost everyone driving by while he serves as crossing guard early in the morning and then again when the Elm Street School kids walk home at 3 pm.
Cross the street and head up Commercial and you’ll see buildings that have seen better days. The Hartland Diner, once the busiest spot in town at breakfast time, sits vacant and has been for more than two years. Continue along and you’ll see many houses for sale, a scenario repeated on other streets here in town. Take a left on Water Street until you hit Mill and turn left again. A block south of the Sebasticook River, sits the car wash, half boarded up now and no longer in business. I wonder, does it dream of bygone days when the dance hall that once occupied this spot was filled with activity on weekend nights?
That recover we hear so much about never quite seems to reach our part of Maine. It doesn’t seem to matter who is governor, who is president, who we sent to congress. Somehow jobs and a decent living wage seem to lose their way somewhere along I-95 well south of Somerset County.
This, however is a story about how people, many who are just getting by themselves, come together every year and make sure kids in three small towns wake up on Christmas morning with something to brighten their day. It started one year back in the 1960s when sisters Shirley Humphrey and Barbara Day were part of the Hartland Fireman’s Auxiliary. Back then, the fireman and their auxiliary drove Santa around town on one of the trucks. One of the firemen brought his little neighbor to see Santa. Barbara remembers her as being about nine, shy, thin and wearing a threadbare coat and adult boots. The sisters looked at this kid and when she took her boots off because her feet were cold, they noticed she had no socks.
“Come on,” said Shirley and off they went. Even though it was a Sunday, they got the local storekeeper to open up. Half an hour later, they were back with two bags of clothing including boots and shoes in her size. One look at the expression on this little girl’s face was all it took. They looked at each other and realized that if they could do all that for a needy child in half an hour, they could, with some help and more planning, make Christmas a lot brighter for other needy children in town.
Fifty years later, the sisters along with what is now called the ‘on the road elves and angels’ spend the entire year gathering stuff that will ensure no kid in Hartland, St. Albans or Palmyra goes without on Christmas. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The next year, seven children were the beneficiaries of the program, then the number jumped to nineteen and 29 the following year. There was a period of time when Santa delivered presents to needy kids in the town ambulance.
The intent of the program grew as well. Since the fire department was, and continues to be an integral part of the program, they make certain that each family who needs help gets working smoke detectors and a flashlight in addition to gifts for the kids. In at least one instance, that extra bit may have saved lives.
Barbara told me that while folks who are in good financial shape help out, some of the biggest supporters are those just getting by themselves, probably because the whole idea of going without is very real to them. She cited two recent examples. A 96 year old lady gave them $6.00 yesterday and last week a young man whose children were recipients a few years ago when he was out of work and desperate, bought $200 worth of toys because he wanted to give something back. She said it’s not uncommon when one of the crew hits a summer yard sale and mentions they’re buying for the Christmas program, for the person holding the sale to comment on having been or a family member having been a recipient in prior years and refuse to accept money for whatever was being purchased for the gift program.
Among the crew who participates every year are people like Savilla and Deana Morgan, coupon users and bargain hunters extraordinaire. It’s not uncommon for them to show up with a big bag of pencils, notebooks, etc. purchased at uber-bargain prices.
While there’s a core group involved year round, plenty of other folks help out come November. The Hartland Library saves new and near new childrens books all year as donations come in and more than a few prizes I’ve won during the year go into the pot. The teachers at the school chip in instead of exchanging gifts with each other because they know in a most intimate way how many families are on the thin edge. The fire department, the town office, the folks at the low income project in town, the Hartland Manor, the staff and residents at the Sanfield Rehabilitation Facility, the Hartland Christian School and the Somerset chapter of the United Bikers of Maine all kick in donations, transportation and time to make sure no child gets left out. Last weekend, dozens of people worked well into Friday evening to set up for the annual food and craft fair with a portion of the proceeds going to help fund the gift giving.
When it comes time to sort and get the gifts ready, even more folks get involved. Whole families help out with the littlest ones helping at the stuffed animal table. In recent years, the program has tried something I think makes a lot of sense. Tables are arranged by age, interest and type of gift so parents can select things their kids really want. This year, there are tables with musical items, sporting stuff, a whole bunch of new backpacks and even a table with pet supplies so families struggling to keep dogs and cats can have a little help. There’s even one man whose job is to make sure that every toy needing batteries has fresh ones before heading off to make a child happy.
This year, the program will bring happiness to 170 recipients including a mildly retarded fellow in his twenties, a baby born last week and a family whose mobile home burned completely yesterday. The sisters are still going strong with a little help from a lot of friends.