Debbie Sheiman walked into Eileen Gombos's office Monday afternoon with a gift-bag that held a dress she bought for her 3-year-old granddaughter.
"I bought it on the Internet, but I didn't see it has Christmas decorations on the collar," she said. "We're Jewish. We've no need for that."
She plopped the bag on a table beside a stack of coupons, flyers and pamphlets. She pulled a clump of tissue paper out and unwrapped a plaid jumper. It was red, white and green with tiny hollies sewn into the collar.
"It's just too cute not to have another little girl wear it," she said, holding the dress at arms-length. "Some little girl will look just adorable in it for Christmas."
Gombos nodded. "We will find someone special for that dress," she said.
Gombos is a social worker at the town's Human and Social Services department, located at the Fairfield Senior Center on 100 Mona Terrace. She's charged with matching families facing tough times with local donors who want to help provide gifts and basic necessities for the holidays.
Last year, 39 families in town signed up for assistance through the Holiday Giving Program. This year, more than 60 families have signed up. With Christmas just two weeks away, Gombos still needs donations for more than 20 of them.
"There's always been a need but this year people are coming in that have never needed it before," she said in her office Monday. "We say we'll do our best to match them but there aren't any guarantees."
She described one family on her list as typical of the new participants: The family consists of a mother, father and 9-year-old girl. The parents were laid off from jobs last year that they'd held for several years. They've been actively looking for work for months while collecting unemployment payments. The father found a part-time job in retail, but his hours are limited. The family frequents Operation Hope's food pantry and has applied for federal and state assistance with winter heating costs.
Their unemployment payments and small income barely cover their mortgage and they live in fear of foreclosure. Due to chronic medical conditions, the parents have to rely on COBRA, the federal program that allows workers to keep their company's health insurance plan. The daughter relies on HUSKY, the state-run insurance program for teenagers and children. They have had to use credit cards to pay for basic items like food and clothing.
"The family would appreciate grocery store gift cards and gas gift cards," the list says. "Their daughter enjoys arts and crafts, books, sports and dolls."
Another entry describes a childless widow in town with no family to support her. She has less than $1,000 a month to get by. "Whether the ends meet or not there is never any money left over for a treat or for something nice for herself or her cat," the list says. "Possible gifts include a gift card to grocery store or department store."
On Dec. 21 and 22, the social services department will drop the presents off to the families and individuals who've received donations. While there remain plenty of families to be matched, the current roster of donators shows widespread support.
The fifth grade of one elementary school in town has adopted three families. A private school has adopted five. A real estate firm chose to donate to two or three families instead of doing an in-house Secret Santa. The first selectman's office has adopted one family and the town libraries have adopted two. Other town departments are considering joining, said Claire Grace, director of senior and social services in town.
A woman from Monroe has adopted one family and two men from Huntington are sending checks to pay for presents for another one. "That really helps us because our funds are limited and we couldn't afford to do this on our own," Grace said.
Still, one need not cover an entire family to help.
"People sometimes ask, `How much do I have to donate?'" Gombos said. "It doesn't have to be big. A $25 gift card for a senior, that's huge. Someone called recently and said, `I'm a senior myself. I can't donate a lot, but what can I do?'"
Gombos's answer: anything and everything. Gift cards are in high demand -- to Kohl's, Target, Border's, supermarkets, gas stations or anywhere else. Clothes are needed, especially hats, gloves, sweatpants and shoes.
"Someone asked for shoes because they now have duct tape around their child's sneakers," Gombos said. If people are on food stamps, she added, they can't buy toilet paper, paper towels or cleaning products.
The Greenfield Hill Garden Club brought gifts Tuesday morning for two more families on the list. Stationed in Room 15 of the senior center, 15 women formed a holiday assembly line, shuttling baskets and wreaths down tables, sticking in sprouts and ornaments and adorning them with bows and bells.
The room smelled like a tree farm and looked like a nursery. One basket, shaped like a reindeer, had evergreen shoots, pine cones and cranberries sticking out of the top. The women made 10 wreaths and 14 basket arrangements in little more than an hour. Half would go to Operation Hope; half would stay at the senior center.
Taking a break, they moved to the room next door to show a guest the collection of presents they'd brought for the two families. A clipboard laid in front of each pile with a list of items crossed off with a marker. Some of the items on the lists: sweatpants, winter clothes, an art easel, Disney movies, Hannah Montana toys, Kohl's gift cards, Bed, Bath & Beyond gift cards, gasoline gift cards, mittens and gloves.
"Last year, we just brought toys, but this is much more meaningful because we're doing it for a specific family and we got the exact items they wanted," said Patti Stypinski.
Somewhere in town, two grandparents with a medical condition raising a 7-year-old, and a single mom with a 2-year-old son will have a merrier Christmas.
Grace, who's also a member of the gardening club, looked at the piles.
"These two families are getting all of that," she said. "Of course, it's not just at Christmas. The need is there the whole year."