MADISON — Just a few weeks ago, town officials were turning away families seeking help from the community’s giving tree Christmas present program.
“It’s not easy. You’re saddened by it and I try to give them other resources, but it’s still hard to do,” said Nancy Gove, the town’s welfare director and the organizer of the program.
Gove said that in the 11 years she has worked at the Town Office, the town always has had a giving tree; but in recent years, meeting the need has become harder.
That changed when a local businessman started a toy drive to help the efforts of town offices in Madison and Skowhegan.
Gove said she was approached in November by Charlie Robbins, who owns Charlie & Sons Used Cars and Chuck’s Auto Recovery & Towing in Madison, and who said he was starting a toy drive out of his office. Gove said the town usually collects the names of about 30 people with lists of presents they would like to receive. Usually people in the community take the names and buy the presents, but this year not many were taken, she said.
“I think with the struggling economy, people aren’t doing as much. Not only are resources tight but people don’t want to volunteer,” she said.
Robbins, 29, who lives in Skowhegan, said he knew both towns usually collect toys and he wanted to help with a local cause.
He started the Towrific Toy Drive, asked people to bring an unwrapped new toy, and in exchange their names would be entered in a drawing for a $100 gasoline card.
“If you make it a game, people have more incentive to participate,” he said.
Robbins said the response to the drive far exceeded what he had expected. He said he has collected close to 300 toys and thousands of dollars in donations.
Leisa Porter, 50, is the assistant assessor in Skowhegan and has run the town’s gift drive program for more than 20 years with the help of her daughter, Aryke Coombs, 30. The Skowhegan Town Office usually supplies gifts for roughly 300 to 500 children throughout the town and elsewhere in Somerset County, she said.
Porter said the deadline for volunteers to claim names of families in need was two weeks ago. At that time, she said, she had 31 families whose names hadn’t been claimed.
“I thought I was probably going to have to go shopping for them myself,” Porter said. “Then along comes Charlie and he takes all of them and says, ‘We’ll get it done.’”
Porter said she extended the deadline and, while she hopes to get gifts distributed to families by Friday, she still is taking names of those in need.
Gove said that Robbins also offered to take all the names Madison collected in November and that they are now contacting people to let them know they have toys to give away.
“I don’t think he realized all that would come in,” she said. “I feel bad for turning people away in November, and I want them to know there’s still help if they need it.”
As donations grew, Robbins added two more gift cards for the drawing. Area businesses got involved through social media, pledging to donate a dollar to Robbins’ drive for every “like” that appears on their Facebook pages.
“I think it’s something businesses can start looking forward to, because it also helps them draw business,” Porter said.
Robbins said he plans to continue the drive next year.
“I’m really pleased and overwhelmed,” he said. “It just shows what you can do if you take initiative and everyone helps out.”
The deadline for the toy drive at Charlie & Son on Lakewood Road in Madison is Monday.
Rachel Ohm — 612-2368