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Westerly Police Chief Shawn Lacey, then a captain with the department, hands off donated gifts to Jonnycake Center workers in 2018. Members of the Westerly Police Department, in partnership with other first responders, will be conducting an in-house program this year to deliver toys to those in need as a supplemental program to the Jonnycake Center's efforts. | Sun file photo

WESTERLY — For years, the Westerly Police Department has partnered with the Jonnycake Center to support those in need by collecting hundreds of toys every December for the center’s staff to deliver to less fortunate families.

With the COVID-19 pandemic presenting numerous challenges in 2020, including preventing the Jonnycake Center from collecting and delivering toys for safety reasons, police are preparing for a quick break from tradition in an effort to continue to support the community and provide supplemental assistance alongside the center’s gift card program.

Westerly officers will forge ahead Saturday with their annual Fill-A-Cruiser at the Westerly Walmart, with officers available between 10 and 4 p.m. to collect donations from area residents hoping to give back in the form of a physical gift. Unlike past years, however, the department will direct cash and gift cards to be given to the Jonnycake Center and will expand its efforts to deliver the toys to families in need themselves.

“This has always been one of our officer's favorite annual initiatives, and when we learned we would not be able to give back to the Jonnycake Center, I came back to (Police Chief Shawn Lacey), and we decided we were going to try and do something anyway,” said Officer Howard Mills, who has helped to organize this year’s collection alongside Michael Garafola as part of the department’s community policing division.

“Our goal here is not to be a competing program, but to supplement the efforts of the Jonnycake Center. We are hoping this will be the only year that we take on all aspects from collections to delivery, and that when the pandemic requirements are lifted, we will return to our traditional partnership,” he said.

All proceeds from Saturday’s collection will be stored at the Westerly Police Department and delivered as part of a drive-by distribution at the department on Saturday, Dec. 19. The department has also reached out to other agencies that have helped in the past, including the Westerly and Dunn’s Corners fire departments and Westerly Ambulance, and anticipates volunteers from those organizations will also participate in the 2020 collection and distribution.

The decision to host a program came together quickly over the past couple weeks, both Mills and Lacey said. They said there were several reasons that the department chose to move forward with an in-house program, including an increased potential for need due to the economic shutdown and a desire to help children and families who may not be able to benefit as effectively from a gift card-only program.

During the Thanksgiving holiday alone, Jonnycake Social Media and Marketing Manager Matt Levy said the agency was able to provide assistance for 1,214 individuals and 447 families. The center’s gift card program, which was delivered to registered families on Nov. 14 and 15, also provided aid for 498 local children ahead of the holiday shopping season.

Levy said that with all aspects of the Jonnycake Center of Westerly’s operations affected by changes to public health guidelines, the Adopt-a-Family program was modified for 2020 to still provide holiday magic for local kids, albeit in an adjusted format.

Since the Jonnycake Center was unable to welcome the large groups of volunteers who are relied upon to sort through donated presents, and without the ability to safely quarantine the donated gifts, Levy said the 2020 Adopt-a-Family program took the form of a drive-thru financial disbursement in lieu of physical gifts. 

"We are very grateful to the Westerly Police Department for going above and beyond the call of duty so that Westerly-area children can have as normal of a holiday as possible this year," he said. 

As the pandemic continues to impact businesses, however, the police said there are concerns that some may not have received the help they need.

Lacey said one of the concerns police had with a gift card-only program was the potential for abuse. While most of those who received assistance are likely to use them appropriately, there are situations where providing a gift card in November may not result in presents for the children.

Furthermore, both Lacey and Mills said that there are scenarios where those in need — especially those who are more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 — may not be comfortable using gift cards, and providing gifts would help to limit any store trips or delivery interactions.

Those who need assistance are encouraged to contact either Mills or Garafola through the department’s non-emergency line at 401-596-2022. Those who are unable to drop off gifts on Saturday but would like to donate may do so by stopping by the department prior to Dec. 18.

“We want to make sure, especially in a year like this, that anyone in need is taken care of this holiday season,” Mills said.

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