By the time the holiday season came to a close last year, the Jonnycake Center of Westerly had successfully received, prepared and delivered nearly 10,000 gifts to those in need in the greater Westerly region.

The toys, clothing and other presents helped serve everyone who had sought assistance, Executive Director Lee Eastbourne said this week, and he attributed the program's success to the support of the entire community.

With a little luck, and that continued support, he said the center hopes to be able to have the same success in 2019.

"We had a wonderful food drive to serve as a kickoff for the holiday season, with police and firefighters helping to raise nearly 3,000 pounds of food," Eastbourne said. "It's certainly a great start, but it's just the tip of the ways the community helps us make sure everyone is able to have a happy holiday."

Meeting the need

The Jonnycake Center and other organizations including the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center and the Rhode Island Center Assisting Those In Need, have all taken part in meeting the community's needs.

This is especially true in recent years, with all three organizations reporting a slight increase in requests for services year after year.

At the Jonnycake Center, the holiday programs provided meals to approximately 450 families for the Thanksgiving holiday and will serve 500 meals for Christmas, along with delivering gifts for an estimated 500 different children as well, according to Eastbourne. These numbers represent a small growth but remain generally in line with what the center served in 2017 and 2018.

"Most people know about our thrift store and food pantry, but they don't realize the level of on-site services we have available," he said. "It wouldn't be possible though — we wouldn't be able to serve over 500 children without the backing of the volunteers and the community."

Westerly and Stonington residents are also served by the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center, which may be tucked away along Chase Street but serves a larger contingency than many realize. Susan Sedensky, the center's executive director, said during a Thanksgiving meal distribution program Monday that the center was slated to serve approximately 450 to 500 families before Thanksgiving, including 124 that were delivered by volunteers to disabled and homebound clients.

That number will remain about the same come Christmas, Sedensky said, and the center is prepared to work with donors as part of the Donor Angel program to provide presents to children in need. The center served 463 children in 2018 and hope to serve even more this year.

"Our goal is to try and serve everyone who needs help. Everyone deserves to have the chance to enjoy the holiday, and our community really steps up to make it happen," she said.

In nearby Charlestown, a small-town organization is doing big things and serving much of South County in the process. At the Rhode Island Center Assisting Those In Need, or RICan, which operates as a primary social services serving residents from Westerly to Narragansett, board president Catherine Fox said approximately 20,000 people received services last year, including 150 to 175 meals being distributed to families during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday. RICan also helped supply more than 300 children with gifts for Christmas.

The center aims to serve anyone who requests help meeting their needs, she said Monday, and the holiday program provides a unique opportunity for parents or guardians of qualified clients to "go shopping" within the Christmas Attic. The attic is a store of donated toys where clients can select the toys and gifts their children would like firsthand.

"It's all part of the spirit of giving. We want these shoppers to have the same opportunities, the same dignity as those who may not need services," Fox said. "I would say we have about 70 volunteers who all take on different roles for these programs, and we wouldn't be able to offer these opportunities without their help."

A little help from our friends

All three service organizations said they take pride in the success they've had, but said the credit falls to those in the community who are stepping up and the many volunteers who take time to organize and administer these holiday programs. From churches to collections by first responders and from businesses to individual residents, the ability to serve the community hinges entirely on this community involvement.

Westerly's Thanksgiving boost, which was made possible thanks to a joint, four-hour collection at Walmart hosted by the Westerly Police Department and Dunn's Corners Fire Department, proved critical in filing remaining baskets and helping restock the Jonnycake Center's pantry. Police and fire first joined together in 2018, Westerly Community Officer Howard Mills said, and the result has been an outpouring of support from customers, who seem to give more with every collection.

"All we do is stand there. The amount we receive is truly a reflection of how dedicated people in this community are to taking care of one another," Mills said. "This has grown from me standing by a door into a true community-wide effort."

The Thanksgiving drive held in early November focused on restocking food. A second collection scheduled from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Dec. 7, which will also be held at Walmart, will seek to build a collection of toys for the Jonnycake Center. All donations will be delivered the following Monday, the police said.

Stonington police are also stepping up to help again this year, continuing a Stuff-A-Cruiser tradition that is now entering its sixth year. Started by Officer Kristy Murray, the annual collection serves to help local children and has caught the attention of organizations including Sons of Santa, which has stopped by with a motorcycle motorcade on several occasions in the past to drop off donations, including numerous bicycles.

The department will host its 2019 collection on Dec. 14 at Stonington Police Headquarters, 173 S. Broad St., from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Firefighters are also active across the region, including in Charlestown and Hope Valley, where numerous holiday events including strolls and breakfasts to help draw attention and garner donations for children. Many of these organizations also partner with Matthew's Wish, which was founded in 2016 and has grown by leaps and bounds.

When asked what he wanted for Christmas three years ago, Matthew Thayer, now a Chariho High School student, turned to his father, Tim Thayer, and said just three words: "a toy drive." Tim Thayer said his family spoke with Higher Grounds owner Keith Frost, and a single collection point was established at the Kingstown Road coffee shop.

By 2018, the organization had partnered with more than 15 businesses in three area towns, and Thayer said this week that they have been slowly distributing collection boxes for the 2019 effort.

"It seemed like last year, the effort really took off. It's become bigger than anything we could have expected, and we are simply trying to ride the support to help as many children as possible," Thayer said.

Thayer and Fox each said the success of the Christmas program, which primarily supports RICan's efforts, has allowed them to help anyone who has expressed a need by mid-December, and overall has had a positive impact for over 1,000 children.

The program will continue to expand this year, with an additional 20 boxes expected to be installed by the end of the holiday weekend at locations across the community. A "Fill Matthew's Bus" collection will also be held on Dec. 7 at Chariho Plaza, Thayer said, as well as the annual Matthew's Wish Day parade on Dec. 14, which will involved a multi-community escort of first responders helping Matthew to deliver all collections to RI-CAN.

A list of participating businesses and drop locations for Matthew's Wish donations is available at http://matthewswishri.com/index.html.

How to give back

Whether it's through donating time or money, shopping for those in need or simply sharing information around the community, the center directors said there are many ways for local residents to get involved.

The need extends well beyond the holiday as well, both Fox and Sedensky said, and the need will never go away.

"We, like many organizations who share our missions, are 95 percent volunteer. Even I am a volunteer," Fox said. "We are here because we love our community, and if someone approaches us and wants to help, we are not about to turn them away."

Those interested in volunteering for RICan are encouraged to use the website, ri-can.org, or are welcome to call 401-364-9412.

Those interested in helping at the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center are asked to call 860-599-3285 or to visit the center online at pawcatuckneighborhoodcenter.org. Sedensky said the center is especially seeking "strong arms" to perform some of the more physically demanding tasks.

Eastbourne said those wishing to help out or make a donation to the Jonnycake Center may do so by calling the center at 401-377-8069 or emailing him directly at leastbourne@jonnycake.org. Details about the Jonnycake Center are also available online at jonnycake.org.

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