Spreading hope, gifts for Christmas

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LEWISTON — For a 2-year-old boy, there was a stuffed puppy, a boat for bath time, granola bars and blocks. For 2- and 4-year-old sisters, smiling baby dolls and other toys.

The gifts poked out of wrapped cardboard boxes topped with shiny bows, stacked in alphabetical order. One hundred and forty-five boxes in all; 145 families with something to put under the tree, if there was a tree.

Hope House, on College Street and headed by husband and wife Bruce and Jan Willson, held its 27th annual “Hope for the Holidays” giveaway on Monday. Requests have been coming in all fall. Volunteers started sorting donations in late October.

Jan Willson tucked a card into each box with a passage from the Bible and the Quran, a nod to the African immigrants who’ve settled here over the last decade. She reasoned there’s room for both religions to celebrate this time of year.

“Communicating that has made everyone comfortable to come in and get a gift box,” she said. “I can remember the days when even Christmas cookies were looked at skeptically.”

They’re helping 33% more families this year than last.

“(More agencies) have been referring like crazy at the last minute,” she said. “Sometimes, the rug just gets pulled out from under them for different reasons. A lot of people don’t plan on being in need.”

The cardboard boxes and some of the food, like Goldfish crackers, came from Good Shepherd Food-Bank. For the first time, thousands of dollars worth of toys came from Percy’s Burrow in Topsham.

“Toys for Tots always comes through,” Willson said. Bows and gift bags were donated from Dollar Tree. “Right at the last minute we got a call — it was a surprise and a blessing.”

And not the only one.

The furnace broke in early December in the former church that houses Hope House’s Family Support Center.

“For a week, we were working in here with our earmuffs on, sorting toys,” she said.

Then a week ago, Maxim Heating came out to fix it for free.

“It saved us,” Willson said. “We got the heat working, and we ran out of oil. Then Heutz Oil came through with 50 gallons to get us through this. We always run into that; each year, it’s a different adventure.

“This is a generous community,” she said. “They’re really attuned to the needs.”

The center’s doors officially opened at noon on Monday to hand out the gift boxes, but the first woman showed up just after 10 a.m., braving the ice storm outside.

“Thank you! Merry Christmas!” another woman called to the Willsons, as she loaded the contents of her box into a black trash bag and tucked the bag into her wheeled cart.

“What we’re doing is what Jesus would have wanted us to do for his birthday,” Bruce said.

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