AUGUSTA — St. Michael School Principal Kevin Cullen said his students will never forget the look of happiness on the faces of the families who received Christmas toys Tuesday at their school.

Students from grades 6 through 8 at the Augusta Catholic school helped officials from the Capital Region Salvation Army distribute bags of toys to nearly 200 local families as part of an extended partnership between the school and the Salvation Army. By about noon, more than half of the gifts already had been distributed.

“It’s giving these kids a perspective they don’t get to see all the time,” Cullen said as a group of eight students helped a woman collect the toys for her two children. “I’m looking forward to this being a long-term thing.”

Families received gender- and age-specific toys for each child, and because of how many donations the Salvation Army received, each family got to choose an additional toy per child from tables spread around the school’s gymnasium.

In order to qualify, families must live in Augusta, Hallowell, Chelsea, Sidney, Waterville or Winslow and meet certain financial requirements. If a person already receives government assistance, they automatically can receive the Salvation Army’s gift at Christmas, which also included a $25 Hannaford gift card.

“The best part about this was this morning at quarter to 7 when I had 30 kids here lining up ready to unload all the trucks,” Cullen said. “That tells me that we’re doing some really good stuff here.”

The Salvation Army has been teaming with St. Michael for years to distribute Thanksgiving baskets to needy families. Salvation Army Corps Officer Kama Lyle and her husband, Joel, were thinking about the size of the St. Michael gymnasium at Thanksgiving and wished aloud that they had a place like it to distribute toys on Christmas. Thanks to Cullen and other St. Michael officials, plans were made and the partnership was extended.

“It actually makes the process a lot smoother and more enjoyable for us, which makes it better for those receiving our help,” Joel Lyle said. “There’s a lot more space and we can be more efficient and easier for the people coming to get the gifts.”

Cullen had students working in shifts to help distribute gifts. He said one of his students, eighth-grader Gabrielle Green, said during Thanksgiving that it must be hard to ask for help, and that statement left a mark on Cullen.

“It takes a lot of courage to come up and ask for this stuff and take this stuff,” Gabrielle said. “We grow up thinking that everybody has stuff, but this experience has made me see that not everyone is as fortunate as I am, and it’s nice to give them the things they need to have a happy Christmas.”

Her classmate Kyle Douin said the experience has made him see things differently.

“It really opens your eyes to see that not everyone has it as good as you do, and it makes you say, ‘Wow, there’s a whole world out there I don’t know about,'” Kyle said. “You always say you’re going to help people at Christmas, but when it comes time to do it, it’s difficult to actually get out there and make a difference.”

The experience Joel Lyle had as a child growing up with parents who were Salvation Army officers taught him about the meaning of Christmas and how important it always will be to help others. He hopes the students who helped distribute toys Tuesday take similar lessons from the experience.

“It really taught us that the spirit of Christmas is in giving and not receiving and that it’s more about the giving than the getting,” he said. “I look at these kids helping us and hope that this impacts them like it did me.”

Cullen said despite not being able to help in the same way an adult can, the students understand there are things they can do to assist the less fortunate. Last week the school held a fundraiser that raised $2,000 for children in an African village.

“They understand there’s a local community, a global community, but we’re all one species and we have to help each other,” Cullen said. “Hearing someone say that the kids at St. Michael are really good kids is more important than someone saying they are the best student or best soccer player, and I couldn’t be more proud of them.”

The Salvation Army will distribute toys and other gifts to about 80 families Wednesday in the Waterville area. Kama Lyle and other Salvation Army officials spent most of Friday and parts of Saturday organizing and preparing the gifts for Tuesday’s distribution.

Six representatives from VA Maine Healthcare Systems-Togus delivered and unloaded a 24-foot trailer packed with toys, bicycles, educational supplies, board games, diapers, clothes and more Friday afternoon. Togus has been a partner with the Salvation Army in Augusta for 26 years, collecting toys from the more than 1,200 VA employees.

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ

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