NOEL project

Debbie Howell hugs Santa during a delivery of gifts on Christmas Eve. 

On Christmas Eve, the Denver Fire Department delivered gifts and household items to six families. On one of their stops, they worked in conjunction with the Pumpkin Center Fire Department. They ventured down a long, rough dirt road so rough that they couldn’t take the fire engine that would normally serve as Santa’s sleigh, out of concern it would get stuck in the deep ruts.

Chief James Flynn isn’t exactly sure how many years DFD has been doing Christmas Eve deliveries, but he has seen it transition. Early on, people could drop by the station to pick up gifts. Now the department approaches the needs of referred families as a whole.

Their program is called N.O.E.L. It stands for Neighbors Offering Encouragement and Love. “It’s a hand up, not a hand out,” Flynn said.

Flynn has seen the holistic approach work. One of the families that received help in the past are now on more stable ground and were able to donate to the program.

Deliveries aren’t limited to toys. According to Flynn, all families get help with their power bill and groceries. Everyone in the family gets new shoes, clothes and a household care package that can include items such as laundry detergent, toothpaste and deodorant. Local manufacturer of paper products and dispensers, von Drehle, donated paper towels and toilet paper.

The shopping list is somewhat personalized for the recipients’ needs. The family living on the rough dirt road received a clothes dryer, because their old one had caught on fire, and a car seat. Flynn was quick to mention that he was able to secure the car seat with help from Safe Kids Lincolnton and Cpt. Joe Fletcher of the Lincolnton Fire Department.

None of what the DFD did on Christmas Eve would have been possible without help.

“It’s all by the generosity of the community and businesses in the Denver area that allows us to do this,” Flynn said. “None of this is tax dollars, all donations.”

School counselors and DSS refer the families. The department’s auxiliary members and volunteers, who are referred to as elves, help by shopping for and then sorting gifts. The select group of elves who are trusted to do the shopping ride along when the gifts are delivered to the family.

The Restino family has served as elves since 2014. Elizabeth and Stephen Restino are motivated by wanting to show their kids that there are a lot of people out there that don’t have it as well as they do.

“We’re trying to make them better people, to realize they’re lucky and they need to do stuff for others,” Stephen said.

His eyes lit up when he recalled one of the children who received a bike. It’s unclear if the family just happened by during the delivery or if the kids saw Santa and wanted to meet him.

They were greeted with hugs by David Noble dressed as Santa. Within a half hour, the family had loaded their car with bikes and other gifts for their children.

On the way back to the station, Flynn kept an eye out for anyone outside along the dirt road. He used the truck’s speaker to greet them with a “Merry Christmas.” He stopped by several homes where his elves distributed Food Lion gift cards.

“Fire services throughout the county do something for their community over the Christmas season,” Flynn said. “This is our niche.”

He commended the work done by the East Lincoln Fire Department via that department’s ELF Project. “Their hearts are in the same place as ours in helping community,” Flynn said.

This year, their ELF Project raised funds to provide 74 children with Walmart gift cards. On December 17, children were treated to a meal donated by Chick-Fil-A prior to shopping with firefighters and volunteers.

Although members of the community reach out to much of the needy in the community, people are in need throughout the year. Christian Ministry is accepting donations to meet their 2019 operating budget. This season they served 583 children and gave away 702 wheelbarrows of food.

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