PAWTUCKET — The late Ernie Marot was surely smiling down on the festivities taking place in the basement of St. Joseph's Church on Saturday. The Adopt A Family program, a concept the Pawtucket Soup Kitchen founder came up with 22 years ago even as he had some reservations about how it would actually work, was once again bringing delight to dozens of local children and their parents.
Ray Gannon, who was with Marot from the beginning of the Pawtucket Soup Kitchen and continues to serve on the board of directors today, said he was “very pleased” with the response from the local community in “adopting” a family in need for Christmas. Thanks to individuals and local businesses, about 35 families had been provided with gifts of clothing, shoes and toys to place under the Christmas tree.
Gannon said that Marot came up with the idea after seeing so many people pass through the Pawtucket Soup Kitchen who seemed to be struggling with how to pay for Christmas gifts for their children. Apart from the meals he was serving, Marot told Gannon, 'I've got to do something.' He devised a plan for families to sign up with their holiday “wish lists” and then went about asking people he knew in the community to “adopt” a family by purchasing the items on the list.
As part of Marot's plan, both the gift givers and the recipients would then be invited to come together to share a holiday lunch at the soup kitchen a few days before Christmas. There would be a visit from Santa and the families would receive their gifts. It also allowed the giver to spend some time with the family on the receiving end. “He didn't know if it would work, but it was amazing, the response,” said Gannon.
Marot died in 2011, but Gannon said the soup kitchen's board of directors is committed to keeping the program going. Fortunately, there seems to be no shortage of people in the community willing to help out each year. Some want to “adopt” anonymously and stay behind the scenes, while others enjoy meeting the families, and especially the children, who will be opening the gifts on Christmas morning.
Gannon said that this year, compared to years past, he was struck by the number of families who put clothing items--winter coats, scarves, hats, mitten, shoes and boots—on their wish lists instead of toys. “That really tells you something,” he said. “I think if children ask for a new pair of shoes, they should have them.”
Yet, Gannon noted that shoes and boots need to be properly fitted, so he and the board figured it would be better to provide a $25 gift card to the Payless shoe store chain so parents can purchase the footwear themselves. The board put out the word that it was looking for financial donations for footwear and checks quickly came pouring in. “The generosity of the people who are out there was enormous,” he said. “We were able to provide 45 pairs of shoes.”
Gannon said he thinks most of the donors—many who participate annually in the program—want to remain in the background. He notes, however, that the list includes many Pawtucket individuals and families, some local law firms and other professionals, several elected officials, and some small and large business owners. One group of employees that he wants to single out is from the Rhode Island Registry of Motor Vehicles. When the Registry was headquartered in Pawtucket, numerous employees began sponsoring families, and many continue to do so, even though the headquarters has moved to Cranston.
As it has each year, Saturday's party featured a kids-friendly lunch in the St. Joseph's Church basement on Walcott Street. There was also face painting and a visit from Santa (88-year-old Pawtucket resident Irving Basiliere, who was also there from the start with Marot and reprises his role each year.) A good number of the sponsors showed up to meet and mingle with their adopted family. Of the sponsors, Gannon said he heard several of them say, 'Don't forget to call me next year.'
For Gannon, the program means driving around in the days before the party to pick up many of the donated gifts. As of Christmas Eve day, he was still left with trying to deliver gifts to two families who failed to show up at the holiday lunch. One family was proving to be especially difficult to track down. “I've been trying to call and their phone is disconnected, so I'm going to drive by the house and see if someone is there or who can get the gifts to them,” said Gannon.
Gannon adds, however, that he continues to believe in a saying that he heard years ago: “No man stands so tall as when he stoops to help a child.”