Finding Santa's workshop...just in time

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You’ll never know where you’ll find Santa’s workshop.

Bobbie Bacon knows that all too well.

Just a couple of weeks ago with the days ticking off to Christmas, Bacon still didn’t have a workshop for scores of volunteers to sort, wrap and assemble thousands of clothing items, practical items and toys to fulfill requests displayed on giving trees in every Gregg’s Restaurant.

Bacon, who owns and operates the restaurant chain with her husband, Bob, faced a quandary. As Gregg’s has done since it started the giving tree 22 years ago, customers had come through in a big way. The gifts were there and now they needed to be matched with other family requests, such as boots, coats, blankets, shirts and pants for delivery before Christmas.

Considering more than 900 families would be served from the Gregg’s trees, plus an additional 500 or so to meet the request of various agencies, Bacon needed a heated open area of about 10,000 square feet – the workshop where all of this would come together over several days. An estimated 40,000 gifts had to be sorted and wrapped.

For many years Gregg’s staff and volunteers worked from a Warwick warehouse. The facility was adequate, but that was no longer available after the building was occupied. Bacon put out calls in hopes of finding something.

“This year was a scary thing,” Bacon said Thursday.

They were coming down to the wire and nothing had come through from Bacon’s network of friends and contacts. Then Mark Shovlin called. He had warehouse space in East Greenwich on South County Trail. Bacon was ready to look at anything and she joined Shovlin to see at the space. It was filled with materials on pallets. Shovlin assured her that could be moved and, suddenly, Bacon’s anxiety melted away. They had a place.

The workshop was humming Thursday morning. Volunteers worked in crews sorting clothing by size while another team wrapped gifts and yet another compiled wrapped items in bags, carefully checking lists to ensure everything was included. Bacon was on the hunt for a Patriots blanket, one of those special requests she wanted to be sure to fill. She had seen it earlier in the morning and wanted to make certain it reached the right person.

On the whole, she said, requests are modest and largely for essentials.

“These people don’t ask for the ready expensive gifts,” she said. Some requests, however, may seem unusual – like an elderly woman who is in a nursing home. Bacon said she’s going to make sure the woman gets more than the single two-liter of Pepsi she requested. She’s going to get a case of the soda.

Harriett Dever, 93, who died on Nov. 16 was a regular volunteer, relates Michelle Jordan. Dever faithfully turned out year after year and after one of the other volunteers dropped her off to her Providence home they suggested she could use some help from the Giving Tree.

“She had nothing but she didn’t ask for anything,” said Jordan.

That can be said of many volunteers.

Denise Murphy of Warwick, who has volunteered for the past seven years, says helping out puts her in the mood for the season.

“It makes me feel like Santa,” she said.

At one time Murphy filled gift requests posted on one of the Gregg’s trees. “Now I’m on the other end of it,” she said. Murphy also brings gifts to nursing homes.

The Giving Tree has become a community effort involving many companies.

“We get money from vendors, but people like Pepsi, New England Coffee, bags from Packaging and More, labels from WB Mason...everything is donated to this, Ocean State Job Lot with wrapping paper, gifts, they do a lot,” said Bacon.

But the event has come to mean so much more for so many people.

“They know this is something they can do so that's why I think it's so successful, because people want to find ways that they can help,” she said. “Even if they think it's a small thing they're doing, it's a humongous thing they're doing. So everybody who took a name off a tree, it's so important to us and we really thank them, too.”

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