LOWELL — COVID-19 has thrown a curve ball at all types of events, including annual holiday gatherings put on by companies, friend groups, church groups and the like. While most can shrug off the loss of a party and deal with it, there are those for whom a holiday gathering is the only bright light on their calendar.
For the third year in a row, Tewksbury families have stepped up and joined an effort to provide assistance and some cheer through generous donations to Lowell Healthy Families. Part of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Eliot Human Community Services, the group has been holding a holiday party for the very vulnerable population the organization serves for over 15 years.
The non-profit agency supports young mothers with children ages 0-3 with pre- and post-natal education, nutritional guidance, and services to help mother and baby thrive. The agency serves Lowell, Tewksbury, Westford, Chelmsford, Dracut, Tyngsboro, Dunstable and Billerica and relies on caring home visitors to supervise and steer the young clients.
In some instances, young mothers are homeless, while others are “couch surfing” from house to house with their infants, relying on the good graces of friends and family to put them up temporarily. Some mothers find themselves in abusive situations. The lack of affordable housing has created challenging circumstances for these and many other families in the Merrimack Valley in “normal” times, and the pandemic has just exacerbated the issue.
Since the annual gathering was not possible this year, Tewksbury residents who usually bake for the big event, instead, created gift bags for over 50 moms and dads in the program. Several residents, including Rose O’Neill, created book bags which had child-sized masks in matching patterns to the books inside.
Lauren Cunningham enlisted some friends from St. Williams Adult Choir including Rita LaBella and Florinda Sullivan who made extra hats and hand-crafted masks, and Beth McFadyen organized members from Tewksbury Congregational church. Dasia Allen made gift bags as part of her community service project, and Lori Carriere created hand-crafted cards to accompany the bags.
Fran Cameron of Billerica appreciated the diversion from a family medical issue to go out and work on her bags. Generous helpers from nearby Wilmington, North Andover and Groton who have ties to Tewksbury also pitched in as the network grows. Each gift bag included a winter hat, gloves, lip balm, hand lotion, a mask, and goodies such as chocolates, cocoa, and even blankets and socks.
While the gift bags are distributed to the adults, Girl Scout leader and Tewksbury resident Sarah Leshay coordinated the gifts for the children. Leshay and her own team of elves, Jess Ferronetti and Nicole Thissell, solicited donations and helped shop, reached out to friends, family and coworkers and were able to cover all wishes with donated gifts or monies.
The home visitors provided a list of items that would be of highest priority for the children, and Leshay and Ferronetti spent a morning buying the balance of the items. Donations were so generous that Leshay was also able to provide over $400 in grocery gift cards to the agency.
Leshay has been involved since 2018 when a local social services agency fell through on the gift side and has introduced several process improvements and streamlined giving. In total, 62 children were served this year with gift bags that included warm winter clothing, books and toys.
An unexpected benefit of the project this year was the involvement of the Nashoba Learning Group in Billerica. Amy Fong was looking for a project that adult day care clients could do safely, a tall order in COVID-times. Through Leshay, the NLG group was able to wrap the gifts for the effort, providing clients with meaningful work and helping the organizers get all the gifts wrapped, sorted and labeled for distribution. Photos on the NLG public Facebook page show the great effort.
Said Leshay, “There are so many ways for us to give back, whether it is through time or goods or monetary donations. Our community and those around us have many opportunities if we only look.”
If you’d like to be included in the effort next year, send an email to Paige Impink