FORT KENT, Maine — By the end of the classic 1947 holiday movie “Miracle on 34th Street,” which tells the story of Kris Kringle defending his identity as Santa Claus, even the the most cold-hearted character believes in the magic of Christmas.
Now there’s a modern-day, real-life holiday magic story floating around northern Maine, and it’s melting a lot of hearts along the way as a community bands together to make one area family’s Christmas a bit more special than it otherwise might have been.
It all began a few weeks ago when the staff at Valley Motors in Fort Kent set up its annual mail drop-off box with a direct delivery route to Santa at the North Pole.
Children could bring in letters to the jolly old elf, drop them in the box and select a gift of a small model car while they were at it.
Valley Motors staff members, knowing full well how busy Santa is this time of year, helped out by prereading the letters and penning responses.
“I was reading the second or third batch of letters, and there were some funny and cute ones,” Steve Daigle, Valley Motors marketing director, said this week. “Then I got to two from two sisters talking about how ‘their mommy had died’ and that they lived with their memer and all they wanted were American Girl dolls.”
Each letter also included a PS asking Santa for gifts for their brother and grandmother, if possible.
“All I could think was, ‘Wow,’” Daigle said. “I have to make this happen.”
Daigle first tried contacting the makers of the popular dolls directly, but ran into corporate red tape when he received what he termed a “generic response” to fill out a donation request form.
Given that the dolls, each of which comes with a specific outfit and backstory, retail around $150 each and are nearly impossible to find this close to Christmas, Daigle said he was somewhat at a loss.
But Santa had apparently gotten the message and sent a solution in the form of Rudy St. Peter, northern Maine organizer of Marines’ Toys for Tots.
“Rudy happened to walk into my office [and] I told him the story and he just ran with it,” Daigle said.
“Steve showed me those two letters and I said, ‘Give them to me and I’ll see what I can do,’” St. Peter said.
Working his contacts, St. Peter got in touch with Joe Daley, one of the organizers behind the annual land speed races on the former Loring Air Force Base, and a supporter of Marines’ Toys for Tots.
“Joe told me he had a friend who wanted to do something special for us,” St. Peter said. “So, on a longshot I faxed him those letters.”
That friend, who lives in New York and wishes to remain anonymous, came through in a big way, St. Peter said.
“This gentleman went home and talked to his own daughter and son, and they decided to sponsor the [Fort Kent] family,” St. Peter said.
Not only did the New York family score and have delivered to Fort Kent two American Girl dolls, they arranged for additional gifts for the entire family.
But there’s more.
“They also volunteered to sponsor each of the children and will make sure they each get a birthday gift every year until they turn 16,” St. Peter said.
A true Christmas miracle, and if ever a family deserves one, it’s the two sisters, their brother and grandmother, Daigle said.
Speaking to the BDN this week in the Valley Motors lobby, the grandmother said she did not want her family’s names or photos published, but wanted to make sure the community knew what a huge difference they had made.
Because of family medical situations, she has been raising her three grandchildren — one of whom is autistic — for the past 10 years. Her husband died of cancer in early 2010 and her daughter — the sisters’ mother — several months later.
The family lives on the grandmother’s fixed disability income as she fights leukemia, diabetes and has suffered three heart attacks.
Valley Motors posted the girls’ letters on social media and Daigle said the calls, letters and donations have been nonstop from community members.
“I had one woman come in who said she did not have any money but is a big coupon clipper,” he said. “She told me, ‘I’ve raised children so I know what they need.’”
The woman handed Dagiel a bag overflowing with household necessities such as toothpaste, toothbrushes, toiletries and other items.
Other people have mailed or hand-delivered cash, gift cards or toys, he said.
Not one to spend time on the Internet or social media, the girls’ grandmother said she had no clue any of this was going on.
“This is awesome,” she said, fighting back tears. “Something like this, you look at people and you realize there are good people out there who help others in need.”
The woman has managed to keep the influx of toys and gifts a secret from her grandchildren, and on Tuesday she said as far as they knew, each had only two small gifts under the tree.
“I have everything else hidden under a tarp in the basement,” she said. “You just can’t imagine what this is going to mean to these three kids. I can’t begin to thank everyone enough.”
For St. Peter, just being involved is thanks enough.
“This has made my Christmas. I don’t care if all I get now is a lollipop for Christmas,” St. Peter said. “This really does remind me of a ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ but this year it’s in Fort Kent, Maine.”