By Nance Ebert, Contributing Writer
Westborough – For well over a decade, the Westborough Rotary Club and Westborough Youth and Family Services have partnered to hold their annual Free Holiday Store where parents and guardians can select presents for their children who might otherwise receive none.
“This year, there were 91 families that came through with 186 children benefiting this year. Just knowing that we are truly able to make a difference in so many people’s lives is quite rewarding,” said Julia O’Neil-Welch, WYFS administrative assistant.
The meeting room of the Westborough Library was transformed into a toy store filled with everything from books, games, athletic equipment, dolls, radio-controlled cars, DVDs, gift cards, crafts and more. The Rotary Club covered all of the expenses for the wrapping paper, tape and bows.
“John Badenhause, director of WYFS, reached out to the Westborough Rotary Club almost 15 years ago for the Rotarians to take possession of donated toys. I got involved in this organization and feel it is one of the best organizations in town as far as service work. There are so many people in this town who give of themselves. We, as a group, can put the word out and, before we know it, there are items just pouring in. The service is heartfelt,” said Rotary President-elect Gerry Gross, who is chair of the Holiday Store.
There were about 40 hours of appointments for this free shopping experience ranging from 30 minutes of shopping to one hour, depending on the number of children the parents needed gifts for. The windows of the library were covered and families could enter and exit with anonymity.
“The Willows Knitters gave hats and each child also went home with two books, a craft, puzzle and a game. The Recreation Department donated t-shirts and provided literature highlighting services that we provide. So many local companies also help support what we do,” O’Neil-Welch said. “We are so grateful for their toy drives and all of their other donations. Without their generosity, we would not be able to do what we do.”
Holidays can be a difficult time of year for many. Some people are separated from families in other countries or other states making it challenging to be together.
“This year, we reached families from 10 different countries. The gratitude and appreciation they expressed was humbling. Many came in to get gifts and became quite emotional. For many, just walking through the door was difficult and we made sure to treat everyone with the utmost respect and dignity. We got so many hugs,” said O’Neil-Welch.
Many organizations participated. The Newcomers Club found out that baby gifts were needed so they collected many and also donated gift cards. Mill Pond School held a toy drive.
Patrick O’Neil, an eighth-grader in Troop 100, donated backpacks as part of his Eagle Scout project. “Fill Backpacks to Fill Bellies” was a huge success in which 130 packs filled with non-perishable food and $15 for each recipient. The Westborough Athletic and Social Association contributed $500 to help with the food. Patrick also organized food drives at Stop and Shop.
“The town is thinking of closing the WYFS but the realization is that services like this cannot be done by the Rotary Club alone. We don’t have the manpower,” Gross noted.
“I only started in this position on November 15th. This event, for me, has been a magical experience. To be able to get so much joy out of giving back feels amazing. So many people coming together to help is really what a community is all about,” said O’Neil-Welch.
The process for selecting families to participate is initially through application, which are available at the WYFS office in the Forbes Building, 45 W. Main St.