When Officer Kristy Murray approached the Stonington Police Department administration in 2014 with the idea to host a Stuff-A-Cruiser to benefit those in need in the community, she was not surprised that Chief J. Darren Stewart and Capt. Todd Olson were willing to jump onboard.
But with no advertising to promote the event, which consisted of a few officers stationed outside headquarters with a sign and cruiser to collect non-perishable foods and unwrapped toys, she never anticipated that the community would rise to the occasion the way it did — or that the collection would grow into one of the more popular annual traditions at the Stonington Police Department today.
“We weren’t expecting the community response we got that first year and it has only grown by leaps and bounds since,” Murray said. “It has truly taken off; and it’s an event that all the officers have backed since the beginning.”
Over the past four years, led by Murray and Det. Gregory Howard, the annual collection has grown to include a full cook-out with officers, Christmas music, caroling and more. It’s essentially a community-wide holiday party to benefit those in need, Murray explained.
For police throughout the greater Westerly-Pawcatuck area, these collections are as much an annual tradition as Christmas trees and candy canes.
In addition to the Stonington police Stuff-A-Cruiser, Westerly police annually host two separate Fill-A-Cruiser collections for Thanksgiving and to meet Christmas holiday needs. Proceeds from the Stonington collection are given to the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center and Stonington Human Services programs, while collections in Westerly benefit patrons of the Jonnycake Center.
Police in the smaller towns of Richmond, Hopkinton and Charlestown don’t often host their own exclusive collections, but they do work alongside other organizations such as Matthew’s Wish.
Operated through the Rhode Island Center Assisting those in Need, Matthew’s Wish was founded in 2016 by Chariho High School student Matthew Thayer. Richmond police have joined the effort, Richmond Police Chief Elwood M. Johnson Jr. said, and will participate for a second year in a row.
“When you are a small department, it can be difficult to coordinate getting everyone together during the holidays as personnel is often already stretched, but these officers still find a way to help out,” Johnson said.
Westerly Police Lt. Steven Johnson said when it comes to these events, participation is high among members of the department. That’s not a surprise, Johnson said, given it’s a chance for officers to give back to their communities while enjoying friendly interactions with the public in a non-emergency setting.
“We see it every day. Whether it’s in a home where a family-member is struggling with addiction or just a situation where a dedicated single parent is struggling to make ends meet, we see the needs firsthand but often times, we cannot address those issues during the response,” Johnson said. “These events allow the officers to help meet those needs, and do so in an environment where they can relax and just talk with residents.”
The need for the holiday services are being met in each community, according to officials, but the request for help is still larger than most would expect and growing every year.
At the Jonnycake Center of Westerly, Executive Director Lee Eastbourne said more than 300 families were provided the ingredients necessary to host a home-cooked Thanksgiving meal. Across the river in Stonington, Pawcatcuk Neighborhood Center Executive Director Susan Sedensky said her organization was able to take on a few last minute requests and provided meals to more than 500 families. The Johnnycake Center and PNC also each expect to provide gifts for more than 500 children this year.
Eastbourne and Sedensky said the level of service is expected to increase by 20 to 25 percent as the season grows colder and the Christmas holiday draws near.
If not for community partnerships that provide hundreds of volunteers and the dedicated efforts of organizations like the police departments that provide countless donations, Eastbourne and Sedensky said there would be no way to meet the needs.
“It’s organizations like these that help spread our message and get the word out that there is a need, and that local residents can help,” Eastbourne said. “These collections pass the need to the public and fortunately, we live in a community that has been responsive to that message.”
Sedesnsky added that the annual efforts are an important part of a larger effort that helps keep the wheel turning and non-profit organizations running. Sedensky said her organization will now turn its focus toward Christmas after meeting the Thanksgiving need.
“It’s a full community effort. With the support we’ve received, and the commitment from organizations like the police department, we are hopeful we will be able to meet all Christmas needs as well,” she said.
Both Stonington and Westerly have scheduled upcoming collections, while Richmond will take part in the second Matthew’s Wish Toy Drive and Parade in Richmond.
The Westerly collection will take place Dec. 2, from noon to 4 p.m. at the Westerly Walmart store. The collection will include non-perishable food items and new, unwrapped toys. For more information, visit the Westerly Police Department’s Facebook page.
Stonington police will host its annual collection in partnership with Stonington Community Services on Dec. 10, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and will also include a collection of non-perishable food items and new, unwrapped toys. For more information, call 860-599-4411.
Matthew’s Wish will host the second Toy Drive and Parade in Charlestown on Dec. 10 from 2 to 4 p.m. The event is open to the public and both food and new, unwrapped toy donations will be collected. For more information, see the event listing on Facebook at facebook.com/events/918562294965103/.