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The Gardner News, Kerry O’Brien, News Staff Writer

FITCHBURG — The Worcester County Sheriff’s office kicked off its annual coat drive Thursday, collecting new and gently used winter coats to be distributed to community centers throughout the area on Dec. 5.

“The purpose of today is notifying the community of the need,” said Sheriff Lewis Evangelidis. “Our goal is to help people in the community.

For me, the greatest part of this is seeing the looks on people’s faces that we brought the coats to. One girl said to me last year, ‘Sheriff, this is so much more than a coat.’ With that statement, I understood exactly what she meant — she’s no longer cold, she has dignity, a feeling a warmth. You can’t really put that into words. It’s invaluable.”

Donations can be dropped off at the Fitchburg Office of Community Corrections at 19 Fairmont Place or Independent Cleaners of Fitchburg. Arrangements can be made for representatives of the sheriff’s office to pick up donations by calling 978-342-1600.

Last year, the drive collected approximately 1,300 coats, and organizers this year aim to top that with a goal of collecting close to 2,000.

“There’s an enormous need, that’s what we learned last year,” Mr. Evangelidis said. “When I first saw we had 1,300 last year, my first thought was, ‘Are we going to be able to give them all away?’ It’s sad to say, but that was the least of our problems. I don’t think we’ll ever have to worry about having too many.”

The annual coat drive has been a tradition in the sheriff’s office for the past seven years.

“In the past years, we’ve seen people that used to be on the giving end coming to us sometimes, embarrassed,” said Nicolas Formaggia, a representative from Leominster’s Spanish American Center, which receives coat donations through the drive. “Today more than ever, (this program) has relevance. We’re telling people we care and we’re not giving up.”

Since taking office, Mr. Evangelidis has expanded the program to provide coats to individuals in need in Gardner and southern parts of Worcester County.

“We doubled it,” he said. “We’re working together to identify where the needs are in the communities.”

“It’s really important that we get more coats,” said Mark Leary, program director at the Fitchburg Office of Community Corrections. “There’s a lot of need out there.”

Coats will be handed out at the Gardner Community Action Committee, the Spanish American Center and Cleghorn Neighborhood Center in Fitchburg.

“For many people, getting coats for two to three children is half a pay check,” Mr. Formaggia said. “This is a big relief we’re providing to families.”