Plenty of cheer to spare

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“This is so joyful,” Leslie Baxter said as she waited in line with her daughter, Katherine, Sunday morning at the National Guard armory on Airport Road, the two of them holding boxes from Home Depot. The boxes already contained jars of peanut butter and Autocrat coffee syrup.

By the time they reached the end of the line, their boxes and those held by others were filled with scores of items from Dunkin Donuts coffee to toiletries, candy, games, toys and even personalized cards from students across the state.

On Saturday about 100 volunteers gathered at the armory to sort donations as they poured in for the 16th Annual Operation Holiday Cheer. Some of those volunteers returned on Sunday, bringing the workforce to 150 who walked around in assembly line fashion to fill the boxes that were then taped shut and loaded onto pallets.

In years past, the program initiated by the office of the Lieutenant Governor filled more than 400 boxes that were mailed to members of the Rhode Island National Guard on deployment away from home during Christmas. This year, fewer than 10 members of the Guard will be out of state during the holiday.

This year, 100 boxes will be sent to Rhode Islanders serving in the various branches of the military deployed away from home while another 200 boxes are targeted for veterans here. Operation Stand Down is coordinating distribution of those boxes.

Lt. Gov. Daniel McKee’s intent is not to let the program skip a beat, knowing that next year several hundred members of the RI Guard could be deployed.

It’s the beat and the purpose of the drive that inspired Baxter and her daughter, a member of Girl Scout Troop 230 based at St. Francis Church, to spend part of Sunday morning volunteering. It was a first for them, and Baxter said the program is the “nicest thing” she’s seen.

Fran Wells, a former Warwick resident, commuted from Massachusetts to be there. She’s been volunteering for the past 10 years and was at home filling boxes with small toys donated by Hasbro for the cause.

Girl Scouts made up a large contingent of the volunteers, along with Blue Star Mothers whose children are actively serving in the military. The mothers worked tables in the assembly line and, as they did last year, sorted through a mountain of candy in a separate room that was bagged for the boxes.

As finished boxes filled pallets, hand lifts were used to wheel them out to a U.S. Postal Service truck. Once the boxes for mailed were off, crews concentrated on the 200 destined for veterans here. An Operation Stand Down van was rapidly filled.

In fact, it all happened quickly.

Less than two hours after the first box was carried down the line, all 300 boxes had been filled and volunteers were breaking down tables and packing up. But there wasn’t a rush out the door. Christmas music played. Santa appeared. People grabbed selfies, but most of all, holiday cheer was in the air.

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