ELLSWORTH, Maine — Each December, when stores along High Street and across the country fill with holiday shoppers, the basement of the Emmaus House, a homeless shelter that sits in a nondescript brick building in the heart of downtown Ellsworth, fills with toys.
Barbies, Transformer action figures, art supplies, coloring books, board games, hats and gloves are stacked in wooden shelves from floor to ceiling. But they don’t stay there for long. Each day volunteers sort the toys into numbered boxes or trash bags. Then a phone call is made, a family picks up its box and more toys are purchased.
The program, called the Christmas Adopt a Family Program, has been in operation for 18 years, according to Lucille MacDonald, director of Emmaus House. The shelter arranges for area families to sponsor other families for the holiday. The beneficiaries of the program need only have children under the age of 18 and they can create a wish list of gifts that cost under $30. A sponsor family then purchases those gifts and drops them off at Emmaus House or sends the shelter a check and the shelter’s volunteers do the shopping. When a family comes to pick up its box, they also get groceries for a holiday dinner.
“Without this program my kids would not have a Christmas,” said Rachel Martin, a single mother whose name has been changed to protect her privacy.
“I don’t believe in all the commercialism,” she said. “But society has made it so you don’t fit in if you’re not a part of that.” She added that having a Christmas has helped improve her teenage daughter’s self-esteem.
Martin and her children celebrated Christmas for the first time in years in 2011 when they learned about the program. They skipped it last year because Martin was working at a fast-food restaurant and felt she could afford presents for her kids, but this year she’s a full-time student so they are participating again.
To enroll, she filled out a form with the first names and ages of her children, who each got to list their first- and second-choice gifts. When her box is ready, it will also likely include age-appropriate books, a board game, hats and gloves.
MacDonald said the shelter has purchased $3,000 worth of gifts this year. So far 140 families have signed up for gift boxes and about 90 have been matched with sponsors. Last year, 250 families received gift boxes so MacDonald expects more to sign up this year.
“There’s been an increase,” she said referring to the of the number of families on the receiving end of the program. “And especially people saying, ‘I never, never thought I would find myself in this situation.’”
The families on either end of the program rarely meet. MacDonald said that occasionally the sponsors want to meet the families they help, but the recipients often decline the invitation. Those who do agree to meet their benefactors don’t bring their children along.
“Many people are embarrassed that they’re at this stage of their life,” MacDonald said.
Many of the volunteers organizing the program are also sponsors. On a recent afternoon, Maureen Giunta worked with Alice Grindle and her daughter Angie for hours, methodically reading through families’ wish lists and arranging the toys into boxes.
“It’s harder to buy for teenagers,” Giunta said. She added that she doesn’t have kids but has learned a lot about what they want through this program.
“Barbies and Transformers,” said Angie Grindle, who is in college. She said the teenagers usually get gift cards.
Guinta has been volunteering and sponsoring families since 2008. She said she had been looking for something meaningful to do during the holidays since her husband died that year.
“It’s such a wonderful thing for me to see the youngsters come with their parents,” she said. “It’s just so much fun to see them.”
To support the Adopt a Family program or get involved, contact Lucille MacDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org or call Emmaus House at 667-3962.