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Soldiers pitch in to help needy celebrate Christmas

Joanna Richards

The Watertown Urban Mission is busy around the holidays. Along with running its regular programs like the food pantry and thrift store, it also distributes warm winter coats and Thanksgiving turkeys, puts on a craft fair, and holds a sale of Christmas items. Fortunately, it's gotten some help from a small army of volunteers – literally.

About 30 Fort Drum soldiers lean against a mountain of empty cardboard boxes. They play with kids, and dart around talking and laughing. Tables are piled high with Christmas decorations.

"Bears in Santa suits, and sleighs. If you need snowmen, snowmen we have," says Drew Mangione, as he surveys the room. The director of development at the mission says these items are part of its annual effort to make Christmas celebrations more affordable. "We have it set up so that things that are 25 cents are on one table, 50 cents on another table, a dollar on another," he explains. 

This morning, the room was empty. In just a few hours, the Fort Drum volunteers have unpacked a big storage trailer and filled it with a festive explosion of sparkling white, red and green.

The soldiers are just back from Afghanistan. Their leadership wants to promote the Army value of 'selfless service' locally, as well as abroad. But they're all clearly enjoying themselves, goofing around as they wait for a truck full of donations to arrive. 

Credit Joanna Richards
Watertown Urban Mission Development Director Drew Mangione stands amid tables full of Christmas decorations, for sale at affordable prices through December 15.

Lieutenant Rachel Stuhlmiller, who organized the outing, says the soldiers gain something from this, too.

"With the Army lifestyle, a lot of times, getting involved in the community is difficult, because we move around so much," she says. "This organization is born and bred in the Watertown/Fort Drum area, so that's why it seemed like such a good fit."

There's still some work to be done to get the sale in order. Mangione says volunteers from the library and a church will be helping out in the next week. But as volunteers go, the soldiers are special. "We love when our friends from Fort Drum come and volunteer with us," he says. "They have a great time in doing it, and you hear laughter and fun – but also, they do a lot of work. They're very efficient."

The sale runs through December 15. Along with décor, gently used children's toys are also for sale at affordable prices. All the profits go back into the mission's programs.