HOULTON, Maine — The spirit of giving seemed brightest in Houlton on Friday afternoon, as officials at The Salvation Army were busily packaging a cache of toys donated at the last minute to replace a number of gifts that were stolen from the facility earlier this week.
It was a welcome relief for officials at the organization, who were heartbroken Wednesday after discovering that someone had rifled through bags of donated toys, picked out the most expensive items, and made off with them.
“We have replaced most of the items that were stolen as a result of donations from the community, from people and organizations in surrounding areas,” Michelle Wardwell, an employee at the Court Street facility, said late Friday afternoon. “Right now, a police cruiser from Toys For Tots in Bangor is on its way here, and it is full of toys that we are going to hand out as soon as we get them.”
The Salvation Army provides multiple services for area residents throughout the year, including fuel and clothing assistance, and help at Christmas. That help extends to soliciting donated gifts to provide to area children who otherwise might wake up to few or no gifts under the tree.
Each year, the Houlton center sets up trees at a number of stores that are decorated with paper angels. The angels list the age and gender of the child and list an item the child wants for Christmas. Donors can take a paper angel, buy the gift and drop it off at The Salvation Army.
The gifts were being collected and stored in a large room at the Court Street location. Most of the gifts were stacked on tables, but some had been packaged in gift bags and tagged to go to the children who requested them.
Maj. Hermas Pearl was double-checking the gift bags Wednesday when she realized that some of the items that had previously been in the bags were missing. She soon discovered that additional items, including jewelry, toiletries, cosmetic bags and cosmetics, dolls and video games also were gone.
She immediately called the Houlton Police Department and reported the theft. Police have some evidence and have identified two “persons of interest” in the case, but no arrests had been made as of Friday afternoon.
Pearl said that while there is usually always someone in the Court Street facility, it is a high-traffic area, especially during this time of year. Employees and volunteers were in and out of the building all week picking up and packaging donated gifts, and parents were coming in to pick up the gifts for their children. People also were coming in to request fuel assistance and other aid.
After the theft was discovered, Pearl began scrambling to try to replace the stolen items. An exact dollar value of what was stolen was not available Friday. After news of the theft was made public, many people expressed their intentions to donate to The Salvation Army on the social networking site Facebook and encouraged others to do the same.
Wardwell said that employees and volunteers were working Friday to get all of the gifts out and under the Christmas trees of needy children.
“We are very grateful for all of the donations,” she said.