EASTON — It’s well-known that Santa Claus has many helpers in his workshop. More efficient than Amazon, his elves organize and pack his bag with toys and clothes for all those on the jolly old elf’s twice-checked list.

It’s also well-known that many of Santa’s helpers are right here on the Eastern Shore, and APG Chesapeake is proud to be part of Santa’s Mid-Shore team.

APG Chesapeake and The Star Democrat’s Brighter Christmas Fund kicks off its 37th year today, and the fund’s board of directors and partner agencies are welcoming Mid-Shore residents to share in the joy of giving so that Santa has plenty of toys and cozy slippers and warm clothing to give to local children.

Beginning Tuesday and continuing through the end of the year, The Star Democrat and its sister newspapers will publish stories each day about families in Talbot, Caroline, Dorchester, Queen Anne’s and Kent counties who are struggling to provide a Christmas for their children. The names and some details concerning those featured in the stories will be changed to mask their identity.

Those stories are the only way The Star Democrat solicits donations for the Brighter Christmas Fund.

In 2019, the Brighter Christmas Fund raised more than $108,000, thanks to the generosity of Mid-Shore readers and residents. Those donations allowed the fund to help more than 1,714 children have a brighter holiday. It was the 16th year in a row the Brighter Christmas Fund raised more than $100,000.

The pandemic creates a greater need for donations, according to APG Chesapeake CEO Jim Normandin. “The board (of directors) is committed to increase the per child grant to $75 per child,” he said.

This year, the Brighter Christmas Fund board of directors includes Normandin, Tracy Berrigan, Tim Kagan, Tony Mohan and Mike Wheatley.

“The directors are so dedicated. They are so engaged in making this initiative successful for the betterment of Talbot County and the surrounding counties,” Normandin said. “And it doesn’t come with a lack of responsibility, that’s for sure. I couldn’t be more proud of how they have stepped up and engaged in our efforts. I’m so proud of each one of them.”

Mohan, principal counsel and assistant attorney general for the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, said the program is a linchpin of the local community.

“The Brighter Christmas Fund is important to our community because it helps people who live and work in our own neighborhoods who are fighting through hard times,” Mohan said. “The Brighter Christmas Fund also provides an opportunity for many of us to lend a helping hand to our neighbors at a time of year when it is most needed.”

Berrigan, who is assistant vice president and branch manager for Shore United Bank, said she’s been involved with the fund for more than 15 years and has seen the fund consistently help local neighbors in need every year.

“It’s been very consistent in helping needy families and children at Christmas. All the dollars donated go directly to help children and their families,” she said.

The Star Democrat donates all of the fund’s administrative and operating costs.

“There are zero administrative costs associated with running the Brighter Christmas Fund. Any costs that are incurred are paid for by APG Chesapeake,” Normandin said. “So 100% of the donations make their way to the children and families in need during Christmas time. We are proud to fulfill this goal as part of our mission.”

Wheatley, former president and CEO of Choptank Electric Cooperative, said the need for the Christmas fund is greater this year because of all the impacts and fallouts from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This year will be particularly challenging,” Wheatley said.

Mohan agreed. “Unfortunately, it seems as if COVID-19 is having the most devastating financial impact on those folks least able to handle financial loss. This makes it all the more important to be generous this year when donating to help our neighbors,” he said.

After parents and guardians apply for BCF funds, their applications are vetted by the pertinent counties’ social services agencies. Award letters will be mailed Nov. 30 and Dec. 1. Each letter contains a unique number that can be taken to one of the three participating Walmarts in the Mid-Shore counties. That number is cross-referenced with a database which indicates $75 in store credit is available to purchase items that qualify as children’s gifts. The credit is not allowed to be used for other purchases, such as alcohol or cigarettes.

“We’re very thankful for Walmart, which has been a tremendous partner in this, as have so many of the families and organizations that give to the Brighter Christmas Fund,” Normandin said.

Berrigan said there are great charities and nonprofits throughout the Mid-Shore but the Brighter Christmas Fund stands out for helping kids and families over the holidays. “I think of all the charities in the area this one I think dollar-for-dollar gets more dollars and more help to people.”

Wheatley said the holiday fund also shows the generous and community-minded nature of the Mid-Shore and directly helps local children and families.

“It’s a way to help out and it’s away to give back to the community and help those in need,” he said.

Families in Talbot, Caroline, Dorchester, Queen Anne’s and Kent counties have been sending in applications for Brighter Christmas Fund assistance for the past four weeks. If you’d still like to apply, you may pick up an application at The Star Democrat. Please see the information box for a list of documents you will need to copy and bring with you.

The Brighter Christmas Fund is a 501(c)(3) charity, and tax-deductible donations may be sent to The Brighter Christmas Fund, c/o The Star Democrat, P.O. Box 600, Easton, MD 21601. Donations also may be made online via credit card or Paypal at www.brighterchristmasfund.org. Click the “Donate” button. For more information about the Fund, call 410-200-1884.

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