For local police officers across the region, the job often entails meeting people at the worst moments of their lives. The holiday season is an opportunity for many to give back to those most in need, and to know their efforts will bring a smile to those who have faced challenges over the past year.

When the Stonington Police Department began collecting donations as part of its first-ever Stuff-a-Cruiser in 2014, the goal was simple: to create a connection between the community and those in need to assure everyone had the opportunity to have an enjoyable Christmas and end-of-year holiday season.

The Stuff-a-Cruiser, which will return this Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Stonington Police Department for its eighth year, has only grown by leaps and bounds since. Stonington Police Officer Kristy Murray, who helped found the Stuff-A-Cruiser event and continues to assist with its coordination, said all the credit goes to the community, which has continued to step up even as needs have grown and challenges have piled up with the pandemic over the past two years.

“This is a great community event, and that’s what we hoped it would become,” Murray said. “We started this with the intent to help out, but we can only go so far without the community. They are the ones who come out year after year, they are the ones filling our cruisers. The community deserves credit for the many ways they’ve stepped up to make this event successful every single year.”

Whether it’s Stonington officers collecting toys for clients of Stonington Human Services and food for the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center Pantry; the Westerly Police Department aiding Jonnycake Center distribution efforts and now running their own holiday toy drive; or police in the Chariho towns of Charlestown, Hopkinton and Richmond partnering with both Rhode Island Center Assisting Those in Need and Matthew’s Wish, the spirit of the season is alive and well among local law enforcement.

And those efforts don’t include separate collections by state troopers in both Rhode Island for Kids, Cops and Christmas, and in Connecticut for Toys for Tots.

Richmond Police Chief Elwood M. Johnson Jr. said in an email Wednesday that for officers who often have to see the terrible conditions facing some youth and families in town, the volunteerism around the holidays helps them to feel they are doing more to make their community a better place.

“Due to the nature of police work, our officers respond to calls where they have encountered people at their most vulnerable moments and facing difficult struggles, including children who have bleak surroundings with very little around them that they can call their own,” Johnson said. “We recognize the positive effect a new toy can have on a child who may be less fortunate due to domestic situations, financial hardships and other challenges.”

Richmond police, with aid from officers with the Hopkinton and Charlestown police departments as well first responders from several fire and ambulance agencies in the region, will once again lead the way for Matthew’s Wish this Saturday.

The agency will begin by collecting items in front of the Ocean State Job Lot store from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. before taking part in the annual parade. The parade will consist of several volunteers with Matthew’s Wish, which has expanded to include over a dozen annual community partners that collect and deliver donations on the nonprofit organization’s behalf, delivering the donations to RICAN on Alton Carolina Road in Charlestown.

“This is a collective effort to spread a little joy and hope in the lives of children and let them know that the police department and members of the community care about them,” Johnson said. “The mere gesture of giving a new toy to a child has the potential to be a memorable and uplifting moment that they can enjoy immediately and can draw encouragement from in the days ahead to remind them that they are not forgotten, and that others care about them.”

In Westerly, police will host their own all-encompassing family adoption program for the second consecutive year. The program began in 2020 as an alternative, late-season option for families in need who were not able to receive the necessary services from the Jonnycake Center as a result of either COVID restrictions and complications, or because of unforeseen circumstances that would have led to their asking for assistance too late.

Westerly Police Chief Shawn Lacey said the department hosted its first event in 2020, helping provide some form of assistance to a total of 85 families at the heart of the pandemic last Christmas season. The need was higher, as many were impacted by pandemic shutdowns, Lacey said, and concerns over safety had led to some confusion as the Jonnycake Center was forced to provide gift cards and do so earlier than they normally might.

The center was still able to address the needs of more than 450 families in 2020 and was a critical resource for the community, Lacey said, but police found a hole they were able to fill and were happy to step up and help out.

The department, aided by volunteers with the Dunn’s Corners Fire Department, have hosted several collections already and will be back in front of Walmart again this weekend as efforts continue. The department is prepared to distribute gifts and donations during the week before Christmas.

So far this year, the need has not been as vast as it was before the vaccinations became mainstream — Lacey said the department only had about 35 families signed up so far — but that will not stop the agency from first addressing local needs before then reaching out to the Jonnycake Center and beyond to make sure no one is left out. Any toys that are not needed locally will be given to other organizations who may have a waiting list or under-served customers.

“This is something that has been so much more successful than we ever anticipated, and with Dunn’s Corners fire as partners, we have expanded what we are able to do,” Lacey said. “Our community officers, (Michael) Garafola and Howie Mills have done such a great job of reaching out to the community and working with those in town, and they will continue to look for those who could benefit from this program.”

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