LOWELL — When the call goes out for help, Tewksbury families are always generous and eager to provide assistance in whatever manner they can. For more than 10 years, Lowell Healthy Families, part of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Eliot Human Community Services, has been holding a holiday party for the very vulnerable population that they serve.
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 organization 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.
A warm, holiday gathering, complete with comfort food and home baked treats, a visit from Santa and a thoughtful gift, is the kind of respite, if only for a few hours, that can take the edge off of a difficult reality.
Providing baked goods for the party, which serves more than 50 people, has been something that area residents have been helping with for years. Reaching out to friends and family, volunteers bake cookies, gingerbread people, brownies, chocolate covered pretzels, purchase baby treats, and provide a little cheer with candies, coffee cakes and more.
Tewksbury resident Lori Carriere manages the main course portion of the meal.
“We had donations from Hannaford and Market Basket, and Lowell Restaurant provided additional trays of food,” Carriere said, as she arrived with pans of chicken fingers and crock pots of steaming pasta, macaroni and cheese, and meatballs.
A few crafty volunteers also crocheted hats and baby blankets to keep the littlest clients warm. Other meal contributions came from as far away as North Andover, Malden and Medford.
In 2018, when a local social services agency was not able to provide gifts for the group, word went out and a few industrious elves took over. Girl Scout leader and Tewksbury resident Sarah Leshay, and former scout leader and Wilmington resident Denise Farnsworth, heeded the call.
Between them, combined with the willingness of the Tewksbury Public Library’s director Diane Giarrusso to host a collection box, all of the gift needs were met. While the mothers had modest requests, the group was able to accommodate gifts for all of the babies and their mothers, as well as some for older children in those families.
Since feedback was so positive from the 2018 effort, Leshay reached out again in 2019, and with a system in place, embarked on a mission to fill requests for more than 190 gifts. The agency had organized gift lists which were comprised of items that might otherwise be thought of as necessities: socks, slippers, onesies, sweaters, books, and sweatshirts.
Leshay said that friends wanted to help entire families, not just one person on the list.
“Co-workers wanted their young children to experience the act of giving, not just receiving,” she said.
And those who could not shop, sent money for Leshay and group to make purchases on their behalf.
“People were happy to help and grateful to learn of the need,” she said.
Leshay received support from Girl Scout troops and their families in Tewksbury, Wilmington and from three troops in Lowell from leader Heather DeProfio. Leshay also had donations from repeat volunteers from Tewksbury, and tapped the Bedford High School staff, even extending to a life skills class that shopped for and wrapped gifts.
Farnsworth reached out to co-workers at Tewksbury Physical Therapy and Drum Hill Sports and Physical Therapy in Chelmsford as well, committing to an entire caseload of clients for two of the home visitors.
“We were thrilled to have been able to support the project this holiday season,” she said. “Everyone had a lot of fun shopping for the wishes on the clients’ lists. We actually received more in the giving than we gave out. It was a joyful holiday experience.”
Eager to help, Next Gen Pastor Caitlyn Harper of Lowell Assembly of God in Tewksbury pitched in with the congregation by sponsoring another caseload of clients. In addition, the church opened its doors to the group when the function hall typically used was suddenly not available.
“We are all about the community and want to help in any way we can,” said Harper.
And, in a gesture of true holiday spirit, the congregation’s leader, Pastor Paul Conway, jumped into action with no notice, sporting a Santa costume for the families when the scheduled Santa failed to show.
Program director Robin Akram said, “we are so fortunate to have the support of so many caring individuals” and was delighted that a large number of clients were able to attend.
Transportation to the event is one of the challenges the volunteers are hoping to solve next year. A number of the young mothers do not have transportation, and taking the bus from downtown Lowell, infants in tow, out to the Andover Street location for the afternoon festivities proved daunting. All in all, however, it was a successful event, and the moms were smiling and grateful as the volunteers packed containers of warm food and goodies, distributing the leftovers so that everyone went home with another meal and some baked treats to enjoy.