Jason Stiles, a member of the Dust Busters motorcycle club, brings gifts to the Kittery Community Center to contribute to the Kittery Holiday Baskets program Tuesday. Credit: Rich Beauchesne | Portsmouth Herald

KITTERY, Maine — Christmases have changed since 1951, but the spirits and wishes of children largely remain the same.

The Kittery Holiday Baskets program, started 67 years ago by a public nurse, has withstood the test of time, and this year, will provide gifts to 90 families, 60 of whom have a total of 160 children. All are Kittery residents.

Barbara Moulton moved to Kittery at age 13, where her mother, Esther Linscott, started buying small gifts and food for elderly people she treated, and new moms with babies during Christmastime. Then, her bridge club wanted to help out, and Portsmouth Naval Shipyard decided to chip in. “The toys started getting bigger,” Moulton said.

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Moulton, now 82, and her sister Joanne Reams took over the effort when Linscott retired. Moulton herself retired from the helm of the program in 2016, but still stops by to see how things are going. On Tuesday, she checked in at the Kittery Community Center classroom the program floods with clothing and toys this time of year. It’s Santa’s workshop, per say.

“She would be surprised,” Moulton said of her mother, as she looked at the Barbie blankets, stuffed animals, lava lamps, action figures and coloring books.

Moulton handed the reins of Kittery Holiday Baskets two years ago to Beth Gilbert, a longtime volunteer.

“I don’t know if there’s a piece of Kittery that’s not involved in this,” Gilbert said. The KCC gives them the space, the school system identifies families in need, the Department of Public Works helps deliver the gifts on distribution day, and businesses and organizations around the community collect donations through various drives and fundraisers.

“It’s a total community effort,” Gilbert said. “I think that’s what makes it incredibly unique. There are a lot of people making ends meet, but the demands of Christmas are just too much.”

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Gilbert said each year volunteers contact every family on their list. Gift recipients fill out a form identifying the genders of their children, their clothing sizes and gift suggestions. Gift bags for the elderly are also provided.

“Sometimes they find us, but we always have a list from the previous year,” Moulton said. “We get a lot through the schools and Fair Tide Housing.” The week before Christmas, the gifts are distributed from Footprints Food Pantry.

Gilbert said when parents pick up their gifts on distribution day, they show “incredible gratitude.”

“All of the gifts are unwrapped and parents can pick gift wrap, so the gift is truly from them and not us,” Gilbert said.

This past weekend’s Stuff-A-Truck event at the outlet malls, sponsored by the outlets, A Perfect Move and the Kittery Police Department, was one of many fundraisers that benefits Kittery Holiday Baskets. Gilbert said former Kittery bus driver Judy Bickley is instrumental in organizing that particular event, and police detective Brian Cummer has also been hugely involved.

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The Dust Busters, a social club of Seacoast motorcycle aficionados based in Portsmouth, pulled into the KCC parking lot Tuesday with several loads of toy donations, including many bicycles and tricycles. Each year they place donation boxes around the Seacoast, and then split the toys between Kittery and Portsmouth, including the Greenleaf Recreation Center run by Operation Blessing.

While the program is getting ready to give this year’s gifts, it will never turn anyone away. Those interested in donating can drop off gifts at the box in the Kittery Community Center lobby or email kitteryholidaybaskets@gmail.com.