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Rhode Island Giving Trees don’t lie dormant in the winter

January 18, 2011

Area charity starts at home.

Trees lay dormant in winter. Giving Trees do not.
Though Christmas has come and gone, the employees of Arkwright Advanced Coatings, Inc. come to their cafeteria, pour their coffee, heat their soup and discuss how to improve what they want to give to local families in need.

It has changed in the past 19 years, the way employees of RI's Arkwright, Inc.’s Giving Tree have extended their charitable branch, and always for the better.

Coffee, Twinkies and charity
It was a late November day in 1992. Richard Rupp, then President of Local 1554-T, ACTWU walked into the cafeteria at Arkwright, Inc. to buy a cup of coffee, black, no sugar.
John Pacheco, a member of Local 1554-T’s Executive Board, was seated at a table, eating a Twinkie. Pacheco laid the Twinkie aside and said to Rupp, “Wippie, we have to do something.”
That “something” was the union’s desire to help those less fortunate.
“That first season saw a modest attempt. Thanksgiving had already passed and the season was moving rapidly,” said Rupp, who approached the Local’s full Executive Board and received a $250 appropriation. He then spoke to Arkwright’s CEO, who wholeheartedly embraced the idea and had the company match the union’s donation.
Union officers then went on a shopping spree and the purchases went to a local ‘Giving Tree’ to be distributed in time for Christmas.
A year later, four trees were put up around the plant with tags bearing the age and gender of a child. Employees – both union and non – picked tags from the trees and replaced them with toys.
“We were pleasantly surprised when we ended up with just over two hundred brightly wrapped packages containing toys that Santa Clause would distribute to needy youngsters that Christmas,” said Rupp. “It was also a surprise to find out that we were somewhat off the mark. While every child wants a toy, needy youngsters need and want other things, like coats and hats to keep them warm, like clothes that don’t have holes in them.
“When I was a child, clothes were something I got as a present from one of my aunts that I wasn’t particularly fond of,” added Rupp. “The last thing I wanted to find under the tree was clothes. These kids wanted underwear and socks. And how about asking for something to eat? Imagine being hungry, and at Christmas? We had our eyes opened.”

Heating oil, bicycles
The employees also found that everyone loves to buy toys for kids at Christmas, as long as the kids aren’t more than 10 years old. Teenagers are another story. “For that matter, what about their parents? And grandma?” they asked.
“After some discussion, we decided that we would try a more holistic approach. We would adopt and sponsor whole families,” said Rupp. “Once again, we were amazed and pleased at the generosity of our co-workers. That season we provided food assistance and clothing assistance to all the members of the households, as well as some goodies to be left under the tree for the kids to find on Christmas morning.
“One of our members wanted to give heating assistance to a family in the form of 100 gallons of fuel oil. When informed that we had seven families that we were sponsoring, and that he should pick the family to be so blessed, he couldn’t make a choice,” he added. “So, he donated 100 gallons of fuel oil to all seven families!”
There have been other splendid donations as well.
“One of our members and his wife have donated two brand new bicycles and bicycle helmets each year for over a decade. The first time, they picked out the bicycles and our challenge was to find the proper recipients,” said Rupp. “With very little prodding, they’ve agreed to do requests. Now, we locate the
children first, and the correct size and color bicycles magically appear.
“This year, they went to the twin sons of a recently unemployed couple. When their father was notified that he might need to make arrangements other than his small car to retrieve the family’s Christmas gifts, he started to cry,” he said.
The tradition that started with that original cafeteria conversation continues.
Over the years, Arkwright has worked with various agencies to sponsor families from Coventry, West Warwick, Cranston, Scituate, Foster, Warwick and Central Falls. During this time, the company has helped several hundred individuals and more than 50 families.
“Each year, we adapt our program depending on the needs of the adopted families and our budget. While our anonymous fuel oil-giver was certainly the most generous of our benefactors, each and every donation, whether cash, clothing, food or toy donated to our Annual Giving Tree, no matter how large or how small, is greatly appreciated by the officers and Executive Board of the Local,” added Rupp.
Challenges to face
Local 1554-T keeps the tradition alive all year, although this year’s Tree is down now.
“This was not one of our biggest years, but every person helped is a success story in itself,” said Rupp of these challenging times. “The company we work for has downsized in the last few years reducing our population base. Our co-workers are feeling the pinch of what, for the most of us, is the worst economy in our lifetimes. Yet, often, in talking with our donors, we find that they are also making donations to other families through their places of worship or local charities.”
Each tag on the tree represents the need or desire of a real live human being. This year, the union adopted five families consisting of eight adults and ten children. Gifts were also sent out to other families and children.
Many of the children received clothes as well as toys. Each family received a $100 grocery certificate. All of the adults also received something special to open on Christmas morning.
“The biggest heart-breaker was the single mom and her two daughters that lost everything they owned in a house fire just after Thanksgiving,” said Rupp. “We were not the only agency to try and help this unfortunate woman and her children and I must confess that we did not wait until Christmas to try and get them some assistance.
“Just days after we heard about their situation, the weather turned bitter cold, so we made the decision to get coats and gloves to them one day and the items were delivered the next,” he added.
There are many local charities that do the same thing. Why should people contribute to Arkwright’s Tree?
“People who say, ‘I give in my own community,’ really usually mean, ‘I don’t give and don’t bother me.’ More people should give. Period. If you give to us you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that your donation will go where it belongs, every last dime and ounce of it. We don’t charge administration fees and we don’t hold money in reserve from year to year,” said Rupp.
By the way, John Pacheco still works at Arkwright. He is still on the Union’s Executive Board, and he still enjoys a good Twinkie. Just don’t tell his wife.

Anyone interested in contributing to the 2011 Arkwright Giving Tree, is welcome to contact Brian Coutu President, Local 1554T & 1554, Arkwright Advanced Coating, Inc., 538 Main St, Fiskville, RI 02823-0139. Call 401-821-1000, ext. 3307, or write to bcoutu@arkwright.com.

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