Families and volunteers shop the “Christmas Castle” at the Salvation Army Bath-Brunswick in 2018. Courtesy of Kirsten Childs

BATH — Felincica Garrett doesn’t know what she would do without the Salvation Army to help her get through the holiday season. 

The single mom of three moved to Maine from Florida three years ago, and at the time, saving money to put gifts under the Christmas tree was the furthest thing from her mind. 

She had to pay rent, enroll her kids in school, establish doctors and care for her youngest, Nyobi, now 6, who has quadriplegic spastic cerebral palsy. 

Garrett learned about the Salvation Army’s Christmas Assistance Program through her daughter Blake’s school and signed up, not expecting much.

“It was probably the best Christmas we’d had up until that point,” she said. “They were beyond generous. … They live up to that name, Salvation Army.” 

In the past few years, the organization has continued to deliver, whether it’s the pool table that brought her son, Ajani, now 12, to tears, or important medical or enrichment equipment for Nyobi that insurance wouldn’t cover. 

“I don’t even want to imagine what our Christmases would be like without them,” she said.  

Garrett’s is just one of more than 100 local families who rely on the Salvation Army Bath-Brunswick’s Christmas assistance program each year— a number that Corps Officer Kirsten Childs said is rising. 

“I did a survey back in August to get an idea of what the anticipated need would be this year, and the results showed between a 70% and 75% increase,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot of new people apply for assistance who haven’t applied ever or who haven’t in some years.” 

With many Mainers unemployed or working with reduced hours as coronavirus cases continue to rise, families are bracing for a holiday season filled with tough choices. 

So far, according to Childs, 73 families have signed up for assistance, reflecting 177 children who will be receiving gifts, lower than projected, but she expects in the coming days they’ll be “slammed.”  Another 32 are signed up for appointments next week, but there are still 37 slots available before the Nov. 5 deadline.

The Salvation Army Bath-Brunswick serves families in Bath, Brunswick, Arrowsic, Bailey Island, Bowdoin, Bowdoinham, Cundy’s Harbor, Five Islands, Georgetown, Harpswell, Orrs Island, Pejepscot, Phippsburg, Sebasco Estates, Small Point, South Harpswell, Topsham, West Bath, West Point and  Woolwich.

Through the program, each child receives pajamas, stocking stuffers and three gifts — one large and two smaller ones. Parents also can choose between a game or puzzle for the family. 

This year, the process will look a little different to mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19. Parents are asked to make an appointment to sign up for assistance. Anyone exhibiting symptoms is asked to do their appointment virtually. 

The “Christmas castle” for gifts will be more of a drive-through this year, so parents and guardians are asked to be as specific with wish lists as possible. 

“I wish it was as easy as it has been in past years,” Childs said, but “we’ll do our best with what we have. Despite (coronavirus) we want to make it as much of a personal experience as possible.” 

Last year, Garrett and her kids saved their spare change throughout the year to “adopt” a kid at Christmas and pay if forward, but she knows this year will also be tight. 

When the coronavirus pandemic hit and her EBT benefits ran out, she was forced to spend money she ordinarily used for bills to pay for food. 

She and her children discussed focusing on family this year instead of gifts, but she said she knows her kids at least will still be well taken care of. 

“They are my go-to when something goes wrong,” she said. “You almost want to be embarrassed for needing help (but) they don’t make you feel needy and hopeless.” 

Patty, a Woolwich resident who asked not to include her last name because of the stigma attached, agreed. Patty, who is raising her three grandchildren, is unable to work due to illness, and her husband has to stay home to help her with the kids, who are 7, 12 and 20 years old and have mental health issues, she said. 

They live primarily off Patty’s disability money, but with rent, electricity and heat, there isn’t much left over for food, let alone Christmas presents. 

That’s where the Salvation Army has stepped in. 

“Without them, there wouldn’t be Christmas,” Patty said. “We appreciate them tremendously.” 

“It’s bad enough to ask for help, but we do it because of the children,” she added. “They don’t make my husband feel like less of a man because we have to ask for help. … It’s hard but with people like that to help us, we can make it through,” she said. 

As the pandemic continues to take it’s toll, many households are tightening their budgets, wary of shopping in stores when they do decide to go shopping, but Childs has faith in the community’s generosity to help support the families who need it. 

“I’ve seen how well the children are taken care of at Christmas time in this community,” she said. “It’s just amazing to see the outpouring of generosity… I haven’t seen a slim Christmas.” 

It’s enough to bring a person to tears, she said. 

This year the organization needs donations for kids in the 10-18 age group more than anything. Younger kids are more fun to shop for, Childs said, and teenagers might be a little more costly, “but being remembered … that fun of Christmas,” is important no matter how old a child is. “They still deserve Christmas too,” she said.

For more information visit the Salvation Army Bath-Brunswick on Facebook or on the website. 

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