Finnegan has been spearheading “The Giving Tree,” a charitable initiative that pairs local children with Christmas gifts, for close to 30 years. The Giving Tree helps approximately 75 families a year, which Finnegan estimates equates to about 180 children.
Finnegan first started working with The Giving Tree when Rhea Clark began the initiative many years ago. Finnegan says she initially signed up to volunteer, but soon learned that the logistics were a lot for Clark to handle while also providing Christmas for her own family. “So I said, tell me how to do it,” says Finnegan. “She told me what she did and through the last 30 years I’ve improved upon it so it’s a lot easier than it was in the beginning.”
Finnegan says that each year, she reaches out to schools, municipalities, and neighbors in each of the nine towns comprising the Deerfield Valley to learn which families may be in need. From there, she gets each child’s size and some information about what toys they like. She creates two tags for each child, one with clothing sizes and one with toy preferences. “That way they get warm clothing and a toy,” she says.
The tags are hung on Christmas trees across the valley, where members of the community can grab a tag and buy the gifts described on it. The trees, which are donated by Janet Boyd of Boyd Farm, pop up at Shaw’s, Our Lady of Fatima, Valley Town Church, and Dot’s of Dover right around Thanksgiving. By mid-December, the gifts are dropped off at People’s United Bank and about a week before Christmas, Finnegan gets them to each family.
Finnegan says it’s rare that a tag is taken without the gift eventually being dropped off. “There’s an attrition rate, but not very much,” she says. “I think this year I had to go out and get a couple of things, but on the whole, people are really good.”
Though Finnegan has been the master coordinator of the initiative for many years, she’s not eager to take credit. “It’s a big undertaking and it’s really a community effort,” she says, noting that Betsy Reagan, of Dot’s of Dover, is a huge help, as is Kathy Flower and Finnegan’s entire staff at Twice Blessed. Finnegan notes that her late husband used to set up the trees for her, but in his absence, her cousins John and Eileen Lombardo have stepped up to help.
She also notes that several churches and individuals in the area adopt a whole family. “I don’t even have to put those tags out on the trees,” she says. “They just take care of everything.”
Last Sunday, the families who received gifts from The Giving Tree this year came to pick them up at an event coordinated by Finnegan. Santa was there to add some cheer and to give the kids something to do while gifts were brought to cars. Finnegan says the number of families who are helped is about the same each year, but it’s not always the same families.
“There are some new families and then there are those who have been fortunately doing better, and they give back, too,” says Finnegan. She recalls a 19-year-old man who took a tag one year. When she noted that it was unusual for someone his age to take on the responsibility of buying Christmas gifts for a child, he said he was giving back. “He said, ‘Ya’ know, Mary Jane, you made my Christmases for many years when my family had nothing,’” she says.
“And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?”
In addition to the gifts of warm clothes and toys, each of the families who receive gifts from The Giving Tree this year will also receive a gift card to Shaw’s to use to buy a holiday meal.