The Newtown Fund, Part Two: Community Efforts Ensure Annual Holiday Basket Program Delivers Joy On Depot Day
This is the second of a two-part series on The Newtown Fund, which is observing its 60th anniversary this year of helping Newtown residents through emergencies. This part focuses on the organization’s best-known annual event, Depot Day.
Depot Day is the culmination of The Newtown Fund’s Holiday Basket Program. It is the fund’s way of making sure the holidays are a little brighter for as many as 200 residents in need.
The program is the largest annual undertaking by the nonprofit organization celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. Taking place traditionally two Saturdays before Christmas, hundreds of gifts and nonperishables are collected and organized at a central location, then disbursed to an average of 70 to 85 Newtown homes.
Social Services receives applications from residents, who are then screened to meet eligibility requirements. Linda Bates, president of The Newtown Fund (TNF), says the organization counts on the town department for its the vetting.
“That’s how we figure out that people truly need help,” she said.
By late November, TNF knows how many individuals, couples, and families need to be “adopted” for that year’s Holiday Basket Program. The names of those seeking adoption are known only to Social Services; each recipient is identified to the fund only by a number, with only their gender and general age also shared. The anonymous family’s holiday wish list is also provided to the fund, which then distributes it to those who want to “adopt” a family, couple, or individual.
Businesses, organizations, families, churches, and individuals will then “adopt” one of those on that list, promising to fill the wish list in time for Depot Day.
Sharon Maynard, treasurer for TNF, says many people count the Holiday Basket Program and Depot Day as part of their holiday season.
“Adopters will keep coming back, asked us if we have the list of families yet,” she said.
Residents can help ensure Depot Day’s success in myriad ways. In addition to taking on the responsibility of adopting a full family, couple, or individual, some businesses and stores in town host Newtown Fund Depot Day collection bins.
In addition, the Hawleyville Tree Lighting Ceremony, which will celebrate its tenth anniversary next month, has also served as a collection time for TNF items since its inception.
According to Ms Bates, 68 local families — representing 100 adults and 60 children — were the recipients of carloads of donated items in time for the December holidays last year.
The grand finale of the Holiday Basket Program actually begins the night before Depot Day. Friday is Call Night, when volunteers contact everyone who has volunteered to adopt a family or otherwise participate in Depot Day.
TNF Board Member Sharon Cohen says that night is filled with calls to remind or educate everyone on how Saturday will operate.
“We remind people that they are signed up to be a driver or where they should go to drop off their items and the general time that they should arrive,” she said. “Someone also contacts all of the volunteers who will be working inside the school.
“It’s a good night to offer everyone a general overview of the event,” she said.
In 2018, approximately 150 volunteers participated in Depot Day. Volunteers are all ages, from all walks of life, according to TNF Vice President Anne Ragusa.
“There are school groups, neighborhoods, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, youth organizations, and other people — everyday members of the Newtown community who want to help out,” she said. “It’s so meaningful and hopeful to see how the community pulls together to pull this off every year.”
This year’s Depot Day has been scheduled for December 14, at Fraser Woods School, where it has been conducted since 2012. Before that, Depot Day was done at Sandy Hook School.
People find their way to Depot Day in multiple ways. Linda Bates, who has served as present of TNF since 2010, volunteered to help with the event more than 30 years ago.
“When my daughter was 7 — and she’s 39 now — we started delivering on Depot Day,” Ms Bates said recently. “We’d go and deliver to families, and I wanted her to get into the habit of giving.”
TNF Vice President Anne Ragusa says other people pay it forward when it comes to the Holiday Basket Program and Depot Day.
“One thing we’ve seen with past people who have needed the fund,” Ms Ragusa said, “is they’ll come back and help on Depot Day. It’s wonderful to see them back on their feet again, but also to see how this touches lives in a profound way.”
Don Brooks has been involved with Depot Day for the past decade. The longtime resident read about the annual event, he said recently, in The Newtown Bee when the fund was looking for drivers.
“My wife and I delivered to three families in 2010, I believe,” he said. “We returned to the school and said ‘What else do you need?’”
He has participated in almost every Depot Day since (“I missed it last year because I was too sick,” he said), and expects to be at Fraser Woods School again on December 14.
“Basically, I support the group by adopting a family and doing whatever is needed on Depot Day,” he said.
Sharon Cohen also found her way to The Newtown Fund through her hometown newspaper, after reading a 2017 feature about the organization.
“I hadn’t heard about the fund before that, and I’d been living in town for more than 30 years,” she said.
“I was very concerned about people who fall through the cracks after reading that story,” Ms Cohen said. She contacted Linda Bates, and immediately volunteered for Depot Day 2017.
“I’m Jewish, so when I was a kid, everybody was jealous because they thought I had eight days filled with gifts,” she recently shared. “But I was jealous of them, because Santa never came to my house.
“I looked for him, though,” she said.
Ms Cohen said she misses what feel like old-fashioned views of Christmas.
“My feelings were that Christmas was about peace on earth, good will toward men,” she said. “You don’t get that feeling too much anymore. Everything is so commercialized.”
Depot Day, she said, allowed her to return to her childhood feelings.
“That day is just beautiful,” she said. “People are there dropping off donations, and the Boy Scouts are moving everything into place. It’s very organized and very fun.”
In 2017, Mrs Cohen also adopted a family — a single mother and her three children. The biggest challenge was not the financial output.
“It was the shopping,” she said. “Coats and shoes are very personal items. You don’t know what the people like, but you have to hope you’ve made good choices for them.”
Mrs Cohen has been stationed at a gift-wrapping table the past two years. She loves the assignment.
“Even though I’m a terrible wrapper,” she said, “it doesn’t matter. I have a whole new appreciation of what Christmas is supposed to be.”
After her first Depot Day, Mrs Cohen volunteered to join The Newtown Fund’s board.
“It’s too important to not get this group lost in the shuffle,” she said of the residents who benefit from the fund’s efforts.
She is planning on being at the gift wrapping table again next month.
“Depot Day is very much like Santa and the elves,” she said. “The elves do all this work, and then Santa — many Santas, in this case — delivers. It’s really similar.”
Sharon Maynard echoed what others had said about Depot Day.
“The outpouring in this community is amazing,” she said October 25. “It’s absolutely unbelievable.”
Ms Maynard was a driver the first year she volunteered for Depot Day.
“When you see how much this means to someone,” she said. “It’s just amazing. We’re perhaps not as wealthy a community as we think. A lot of people need help.”
More Than Gifts
Depot Day is about more than gifts for the holidays. Sharon Maynard pointed out that “if you look at everything that’s included, after we’ve collected all of this stuff — bicycles and toys in the hallways, gifts in the gym — there are also the wishes of the elderly that fill a lot of space. Bags of cat litter for their cat, who they have for company, for instance.”
Ms Maynard has purposely sought senior couples or individuals to adopt in recent years, she said.
“Everybody wants kids,” she said. “I go the other way. Many of their needs are simple things: a blanket, a bathrobe, slippers, food.”
Other requests can be just as complicated as an electronic game or smart phone requested by a teenager. One year, Ms Maynard shared, one of the requests on her list was for a pair of orthotic shoes. When she went to Danbury to buy the shoes, she learned that the intended recipient had not been fitted for a new pair of shoes for years.
“Can you imagine how uncomfortable it must have been for that person?” Ms Maynard said. “It’s difficult enough to wear the same shoes for a few years. Imagine having trouble with your feet and not being able to get something like that.”
Financial donations earmarked for Depot Day, according to Ms Maynard, are turned into gift cards and certificates for local grocery stores and gas stations. The gift cards are distributed to in addition to what donors provide for their families, she said.
“The thinking is, maybe it would be nice for someone to treat themselves to something special for their holiday dinner, something that’s part of their family tradition,” she said.
Depot Day takes place rain, shine, or snow.
“People show up regardless of the weather,” Ms Maynard said. “One year, we had heavy snow, and people returned to drive again and again, to get everything delivered.
“The dedication of the volunteers — the adopters, the gift wrappers, the drivers — everything is done to make sure we get through that last push,” she said.
Depot Day 2012
The tenacity of Depot Day was never challenged more than on December 15, 2012. That was the day after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Don Brooks was among those awed by that year’s efforts.
“In less than 24 hours, the organization continued with their mission,” he said. “And there were a lot of questions. The two biggest ones, of course, were ‘Do we go forward?’ and ‘How do we not go forward?’”
Fraser Woods opened its doors to The Newtown Fund that year, and has hosted Depot Day since.
“What they did that particular weekend was unbelievable,” Mr Brooks said. “They really had no choice, though. They had to do that.”
The fund did not emerge unscathed following its decision to conduct Depot Day that morning, however. One board member resigned due to that decision.
“We lost one member,” Linda Bates said. “This person just couldn’t be part of the event that year, and didn’t feel that it should be done that day. That was it for that person.”
Mr Brooks credits the fund’s president with keeping TNF on track.
“Linda is tough,” he said. “She’s very good at leading this group.
“Even the following year, Depot Day was on the first anniversary of the shootings, so there was even a question then,” he added. “It had to be done, though. Too many people were counting on it.”
Depot Day 2019 will fall on the seventh anniversary of 12/14.
“It will be challenging, I’m sure,” Ms Bates said. “We’ll know what the day means while we’re working. But we will be working, again, to make the holidays better for many others.”
Board members agree: Depot Day could never happen without the help of the entire community.
“We’re a small board,” Ms Maynard said. “We could never do this without the community. There is a lot of lot, a lot of caring, that makes this thing go.”
Visit thenewtownfund.org, call 203-491-7586, or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about the fund, to make a donation, to adopt a family, or learn how to participate in the Holiday Basket Program and/or Depot Day.