WESTBROOK – Capt. Randy Mitchell has been delivering holiday gifts to low-income families almost as long as he’s been a firefighter.

A 23-year veteran of the Westbrook Fire Department, Mitchell has headed up the annual gift operation for 22 years, which, he said, now focuses on keeping kids warm this season.

However, Mitchell said, the main difference from past years is the growing number of families. Nearly 60 families will be recipients of warm clothing and a few toys when the department delivers the gifts this Saturday, Dec. 20.

According to Mitchell, when the toy drive began in the 1990s, there were only about 10 families who received gifts.

Each year, families interested in receiving the donations apply at the city’s general assistance office in the Westbrook Community Center. Families had from early November through Dec. 5 to apply.

Mitchell said that in past years, the deadline for applications was a little more lenient, but with so many families now seeking assistance, it’s more difficult.

“This year, there were just so many that we didn’t have that option,” he said.

According to Sarah Lundin, Westbrook’s general assistance and community outreach coordinator, this year’s collaboration between the department and her office has focused more on providing families and children with warm clothes for the long winter.

“This year we focused our efforts on providing weather-appropriate outerwear to the children of Westbrook,” she said, adding that families identified their children’s sizes and favorite colors for jackets, snow pants and boots.

“The fire department also made sure to pick up a toy or gift of the child’s choice for some extra fun,” she said.

Mitchell said the shopping spree took place last Sunday at Wal-Mart, where fellow volunteers from the fire department’s call company took part in the hunt for warm clothes and toys.

Members of the call company are on-call personnel who are paid if they respond to calls for service. The company is also a licensed nonprofit.

With help from employees at the store, the crew shopped for items and checked out in about two hours, Mitchell said. He said he understands the need for kids to be dressed appropriately during the winter months to be able to stay active outside, “but, being Christmas, there had to be toys involved, too,” he said, laughing.

Since the clothes and toys arrived at the community center this week, volunteers from other local organizations and businesses have been helping with gift-wrapping. Mitchell said at least six volunteers from Idexx Laboratories took part in the wrapping.

“We have had incredible outreach from community members and organizations this year and are humbled by the generosity,” Lundin said about the support.

According to Mitchell, the Westbrook call company organizes a few fundraisers each year that provide the money for the annual gift donations. The majority of the funds raised throughout the year are used during this program, but, Mitchell said, the call company also helps the Westbrook Food Pantry and heating oil assistance for residents.

Mitchell’s wife, Wendy, has also been assisting in coordinating the gift-giving effort for about a decade.

As they’ve done for years, a group of firefighters, possibly led by Santa Claus, will deliver the gifts this weekend from a fire engine. Mitchell said Lundin and others from the community center have also given participants the option of picking up the gifts.

Mitchell is modest about his years of holiday volunteerism. On Tuesday he said simply, “I’ve been a part of it since I joined the department.”


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