AUGUSTA — An employee at VA Maine Healthcare System in Togus started collecting gifts around the holiday season some 25 years ago to help families who were struggling following the closings of area mills.

Employees of the veterans hospital and benefits system continued the tradition Monday by dropping off hundreds of donated toys at the Salvation Army office in Augusta for needy families in the region.

Toys that had already been sorted covered the front of the corps’ worship hall behind the pews Monday afternoon. Togus employees added their truckload to the room, filling up the aisle with bags of toys and several bicycles.

“A lot of the families that come to us, they’re really in need, and they just can’t afford to purchase presents for their families themselves,” said Lt. Kama Lyle, who runs the Augusta headquarters with her husband, Joel.

Lyle, assigned to lead the Capitol Region Salvation Army in June with her husband, said the regional office will be providing gifts to 304 central Maine families this Christmas. The headquarters on Eastern Avenue is a merger of the Augusta and Waterville corps and serves Augusta, Chelsea, Hallowell, Sidney, Waterville and Winslow.

The toy drive at Togus began more than 25 years ago with Susanne Hawkins, a registered nurse at the hospital, collecting toys in a corner of her office from some family members and colleagues. The closings of a few textile mills in the Augusta area created a need in the community, she said.

“Everybody knew somebody that lost their job, or their house was going through foreclosure,” Hawkins said Monday. “It was a terrible time,”

The drive grew over the years, moving to larger and larger rooms, she said. People who work throughout the Togus campus now donate, said Hawkins, who still organizes it.

“They all have special reasons. Many have special stories,” Hawkins said of Togus employees. “It truly is a wonderful time for us all to stop and be the people we’re supposed to be.”

The Salvation Army has two programs for collecting Christmas gifts for families in need, Lyle said. With the Angel Tree program, children fill out wish lists and the tags are placed on Christmas trees in area stores. People pick out tags and buy the presents for the kids.

Organizations, churches, businesses or other families can also adopt a family to buy gifts for, Lyle said. The families fill out Christmas assistance applications in late October and early November and receive the gifts if they qualify, she said.

Lyle said toys have been coming in continuously, and the only thing that seems to be lacking is toys for teenagers.

“It’s been very overwhelmingly good seeing how the community has come together,” she said.

Lyle said the Capital Region Salvation Army reached its goal of raising $1,000 during Thursday’s Kettle Blitz, a one-day competition held among Salvation Army corps units in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. The Salvation Army reported in the news release about the event that income from the annual Christmas Kettle Campaign was lagging behind expectations.

“It’s just been awesome to see just how many people can help,” Lyle said, “and make sure everyone’s cared for and at least have (something) under the tree Christmas morning.”

Paul Koenig — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @paul_koenig

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