It’s no secret that the holiday season is stressful for parents. The pressure to make the magic happen, especially for young children, builds as the days tick down toward December 25. For people with limited financial resources, that stress can be particularly acute.
Up until recently, Karen Gibson was certainly feeling it. The director of Bridgehampton Head Start — a federally funded preschool program for children who qualify based on family income — had applied for assistance from Toys for Tots in October, hoping the national organization that purchases toys and Christmas presents for children in need would help her make sure every child in her program would have at least one toy under the tree this year. But a month after applying, she hadn’t heard back from them, and was feeling nervous — until she got a call from Gwen Waddington.
The co-owner of the Wharf Shop in Sag Harbor reached out to Gibson to let her know that an anonymous donor had agreed to buy Christmas presents for children in need. The donor had initially reached out to Lisa Field, the owner of the Sag Harbor Variety Store, and Field in turn offered to split the donation with the Wharf Shop, to spread the love around.
The local business owners were given the opportunity to disperse the gifts to the organizations of their choice. Waddington said she chose the Bridgehampton Head Start program because she knew it was a worthy local organization, and also because it seemed there wasn’t broad recognition within the greater Sag Harbor and Bridgehampton community that the program even exists.
Gibson said she was thrilled that Waddington and the Wharf Shop family — which includes Gwen’s mother and co-owner Nada Barry — thought of them, and in the nick of time, to boot.
“When we heard, we were stunned and excited,” Gibson said. “We did not know if we would have gifts for our kids this year. We’re a small center, and we weren’t sure that people knew about what we do here, and the needs of our families.”
The anonymous donor — whom Waddington referred to as the “Secret Santa” — made it possible for the Wharf Shop to provide a total of 52 gifts, 32 of which are for the children in the program, while another 20 are for their siblings. Waddington and Barry, along with other Wharf Shop employees, helped choose appropriate gifts based on age and other factors, and gift wrapped them, before delivering them to Gibson. Most of the Head Start program is run at the Bridgehampton Child Care Center, while another small class is also hosted at the Children’s Museum of the East End.
Waddington and Barry also decided to take it a step further, personally donating a “Mighty Mind” for each child. Mighty Mind is a children’s patterning and puzzling game, highly rated as an educational toy that encourages critical thinking. It’s a toy that has been sold in the Wharf Shop for 40 years, personally chosen by Barry to include in the store, which, over its many years in business in Sag Harbor, has developed a reputation for curating a varied and highly-sought after mix of high quality toys and games for children, many which often cannot be found at other toy stores.
Waddington said that in choosing the selection of gifts to donate, she tried to keep certain ideas in mind.
“We wanted to pick out things that they would like, but also that their parents wouldn’t necessarily have the funds to purchase,” she said.
That included anything from wooden cutting vegetables made by the popular toy brand Melissa and Doug, to Magnatiles magnetic building blocks — another popular but relatively pricey toy, and more.
Gibson said that in addition to being thankful for the donation, she’s also happy to see her program getting more recognition.
“We’re very happy to be on the grounds of the Child Care Center, and we do have the one class at CMEE, but we don’t have a big sign out front, so not everybody knows we’re here,” she said. “But we’re here for anybody that might need us and might have children who qualify.”
Head Start programs around the country are federally subsidized for low income families, providing not only vital preschool education but a range of health, nutrition, and disability services for those children. But families must be at or below federal poverty guidelines to qualify, which Gibson — who has led the Bridgehampton program for 18 years — described as “incredibly low.”
It’s all the more reason why providing additional support for the families in that program is so crucial.
Waddington agrees, and said it was important to recognize that, even in a community often associated with affluence, there are families in need.
“In the midst of our mega mansions, there is a hidden population, struggling even to put food on the table,” she said.
Being seen, and knowing that the children in her care will have access to the holiday magic they deserve, has Gibson breathing a sigh of relief and gratitude going into the final days before Christmas.
“It really warmed our hearts,” she said. “I don’t know exactly what our kids will have for Christmas this year, but I know they’ll have some really cool stuff from the Wharf Shop.”