SKOWHEGAN — Efforts led by a local teacher have provided 500 children across central Maine with presents that will be under trees Christmas morning.

Debora Tanner, the 2015 Somerset County Teacher of the Year, said after she received the award five years ago, she wanted to do something more to support her community.

“At the time, I was overwhelmed with recognition,” said Tanner, who has taught math at Skowhegan Area Middle School for 36 years. “I felt that I needed to do something more to give back to my community, so I thought about it for about eight months, and we came up with the idea of the Sweet Dreams Project.”

On Monday, families picked up gifts for children at Skowhegan Federated Church on Island Avenue.

With the help of community members and businesses, the 500 children will receive four to six gifts, including a book, pajama set and age-appropriate toys.

Tanner said that for the first time, she and her other organizers expanded the project to include toys because town officials have decided not to offer a similar program this year.

Debora Tanner, left, and daughter-in-law, Sarai Tanner, sport Christmas light headbands Monday while they participate in the Sweet Dreams Project drive-thru at Skowhegan Federated Church on Island Avenue. About 500 gift bags were distributed during the event. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Tanner said she and her partner in the project, Lisa Duguay, have worked together to make it possible. When the project kicked off in 2016, 114 children throughout the region were given a set of pajamas and a book.

This year, the gifts going to homes have multiplied thanks to donations of toys and money from community members and organizations, including United Bikers of Maine, Gifford’s Ice Cream, Animal Medical Clinic, Hight Ford, ESM Community Supports, Charlie and Son Auto and Towing and Skowhegan Education Association.

“I had 10 to 12 elves who have been helping with wrapping and putting things together, beginning in October,” Tanner said.

Tanner said for the past few weeks, many of her days began with her organizing and wrapping gifts at 3:30 a.m. When the project started to require too much space at her house, she expanded to the church, where families who needed help could call and give the ages of their children and the needs of the family.

“I am giving a bicycle to a girl whose mother is thrilled to think that she is getting a bike and helmet for Christmas because they weren’t going to be able to get her anything,” Tanner said. “It really makes my heart happy, and it is just unbelievable this year because of COVID.”

Tanner and her crew of volunteer ‘elves’ spent Monday at the church handing out gifts to families from across the region, including Skowhegan, Bingham, Solon and Waterville.

Gift bags await pickup Monday at Tewksbury Hall behind Skowhegan Federated Church on Island Avenue during the Sweet Dreams Project drive-thru. More than 500 gift bags were given out. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Students at Skowhegan schools had the day off, and siblings Mackenzie and Cameron Smart spent the morning with their mother, Kim, at the church, assisting with curbside deliveries.

The family members, who have donated to the project before and assisted with Thanksgiving meal distributions at the church, decided to offer additional help Monday.

“It makes me feel good to help,” said Mackenzie Smart, 14.

“The need is great,” Tanner said. “When parents have to decide, ‘Am I going to give my children Christmas presents or am I putting food on the table or am I putting oil in the tank,’ what are they going to choose? These kids would have no Christmas if it wasn’t for this program.”

With Christmas inching closer and the gifts handed out, Tanner said planning for next year’s Sweet Dreams Project has already begun, with the hope of using Google Forms sign-up sheets to improve the handing of information and accuracy.

“It’s a day and night job,” Tanner said. “This program is for babies up to 18-year-olds. This year, I had over 100 children who are 15 and over, and they deserve a Christmas, too. I am overwhelmed with the generosity of people. It just goes to show how much people really care.”

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