A Giving Tree That Lights Up Children's Faces

By: William F. Galvin

The Children's Center Director Abby Newberry-West and Ruggie's owner Matt Rocco at the Giving Tree inside the Harwich Center restaurant. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO

HARWICH — Inside Ruggie's restaurant in Harwich Center there is a Christmas tree that lights more than the corner it sits in and the window that faces onto Main Street. It serves to light the faces of little kids on Christmas Day.

“I call it the 'Giving Tree',” Matt Rocco, one of the owners of the restaurant, said this week.

The tree is an outgrowth of a program started 17 years ago at The Children's Center, the self-supporting preschool program started by Harwich Ecumenical Council for the Homeless in 1993 to provide affordable childcare to a small group of children from HECH families.

Over the years it has grown into a preschool that serves children from 2.9 to 5 years old. Currently there are 27 children in two classrooms in facilities along Sisson Road.

“The goal of The Children's Center is to provide a safe and nurturing environment where the dignity of each child and family is preserved and respected. All children will be exposed to experiences that will foster self-esteem, creativity, problem solving, independence and healthy social and physical development,” Director Abby Newberry-West said.

Seventeen years ago the center started giving little bags with markers, crayons and coloring books to students for Christmas. It was a little something to cheer them up in the holiday season. But six years ago, Newberry-West said, Bob and Matt Rocco of Ruggie's restaurant got involved. They set up the tree in the restaurant and among the ornaments and lights placed little decorative cards bearing the wishes of the students for a special gift for Christmas.

The cards are crafted by the children and state such wishes as “I am a 4-year-old boy who would like Lego Jr. Construction Sets,” “I would like a Hot Wheels Criss-Cross Track Set,” “I would like a Baby Einstein Ocean Glow Sensory Shaker Toy,” or “I am ready to learn and would like Bright Starts Grab and Stack Blocks.” There are also cards seeking $25 grocery card donations.

“I do it because it's the right thing to do,” Matt Rocco said of the Giving Tree. “People need help. It's expensive raising kids. This is the sixth year we've done it and the response has been terrific. People always ask when is the tree going up. They know they're helping kids.”

“They're little and they should have something under the tree,” Newberry-West added of the center's students. “It's nice to provide some extra fun things under the tree.”

Newberry-West said the food cards also go a long way toward helping many families.

“We are a non-profit and truly appreciate the support of our communities. Together we are making a difference for local children and families,” Newberry-West said.

Rocco said he is amazed at the response, adding people come over from Chatham to help out. Participants can either donate $25 to purchase a gift or bring back an unwrapped gift to Ruggie's. Rocco said 100 percent of the donations and gifts go directly to The Children's Center.

Newberry-West said The Children's Center gets a lot of support from the surrounding communities. In a program sponsored by the Guild of Harwich Arts, for instance, members make hand-painted ornaments with the proceeds going to The Children's Center. She said the Chatham Congregational Church puts on Handel's “Messiah” each Christmas season and donates the proceeds to the center. Last year, she said, the church donated $3,500. The 4H club raised $500 with their living creche at the “Reciprocity” shop during the Harwich Port Christmas stroll.

“How awesome is it that we live in a caring and kind community. It's special in this crazy world we're living in. This says it's not all crazy,” Newberry-West said.

Gifts and donations must be turned in at Ruggie's on Monday, Dec. 18. They are delivered and distributed at The Children's Center on Dec. 20.