Though she has no plans to dress-up as Santa – red hair does not pair well with a red suit – Branford High School senior Chandler Fowler will be acting like the big guy next weekend.
Fowler is organizing the first-ever and plans to collect unwrapped toys for the ’s various holiday programs including the initiative. Fowler will be filling her late grandfather, Bruce Pantani’s 1965 cherry red convertible Cadillac Coupe de Ville with collected toys and dropping them off at the center. She’s inviting the community to donate toys on the , December 11 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. or at collection boxes now through Dec. 11 at the following locations: (1145 Main St.), (240 North Main St.) or the (33 Laurel St.).
Though Fowler will be running the Christmas Caddy as part of her Senior Capstone Project, she shared, “This would have been happening regardless if I was a senior or not.”
Fowler and her family – which includes one older brother and 13 younger cousins who all live in Branford – have been donating toys to the Counseling Center their whole lives. In fact, it was her grandfather and her grandmother Joanne Pantani who started the Adopt a Family program at the Counseling Center years ago to ensure that every family in need of holiday help was matched with a family interested in donating.
Her grandfather, she said, was her inspiration to look to the community to collect and donate more gifts than ever for the Counseling Center with the Christmas Caddy.
“My entire family has always been into it,” Fowler said, but add that her grandfather was one of the most generous people. “He was a hard worker,” she commented. “He came from very little and his work ethic was unbelievable. He understood what it was like to be down or not have any money and wanted to help them.”
Pantani founded B. Pantani & Sons Builders of Branford years ago and when he succumbed to cancer at 66 years old in 2008, the business was passed down to one of Fowler’s uncles.
Choosing to use her grandfather’s beloved “Caddy” to deliver the toys is an homage to him, said Fowler, who added that he had hoped to get the car rolling in the annual but never saw that happen before his death.
The Christmas Caddy was born from the original fundraiser, Bruce’s Ride, which Joanne organized after husband died to raise money for St. Raphael’s Hospital. The bike ride, which was held for several years at the was a lot to manage so Joanne and Fowler decided to try the Christmas Caddy as another way to give back. Fowler said she is hopeful that, with great success this year, her family will keep the Caddy running like Santa’s sleigh for seasons to come.
Pat Andriole, director of the Counseling Center is delighted to have Fowler’s help for the holiday season and has plans to use the toys for those families who may come late to the “matching” program and not be able to be adopted and for the holiday party, which serves the clients of the center.
Andriole said that Fowler’s gesture shows her that more needs to be said about the good kids in the community doing good things. “We don’t talk enough about those kids who are great kids and want to help in any way they can. What we see out there, there are so many great kids who are being introduced to giving to others and they are being introduced to doing positive things in the community.”
In addition to Fowler’s Christmas Caddy, several groups at usually adopt a family every Christmas said Andriole, and contribute to the program.
Last year more than 170 families signed up to be “adopted” through the program, and the center was able to match all families with gifts. This year, Andriole said she anticipates the need to be somewhere between 250-275 families. That’s more than 400 children who will be signed-up to receive gifts.
“They keep saying on TV that the economy is better but we don’t see that here in Branford,” said Andriole. “We are rapidly going through money to help people out. We are seeing lots of people who can’t pay their rent.” Indicators of more people needing help through the basic needs programs offered by the center, which includes help paying utility bills and rent, is telling her that the demand for gifts will be the greatest the center has seen in the more than 30 years it has offered holiday help. If you would like to adopt a family or if you need help with gifts, call 203-481-4248.
Before Fowler starts her second season as the BHS girls’ hockey goalie or she ships off to college with plans to become a nurse, she said she is really looking forward to seeing the Christmas Caddy come to fruition.
Fowler has gone to New Orleans on mission trips for the past two summers with the to build homes. Focusing her efforts to help others here in Branford, she said, “It’s going to be so good to see the difference in my own town that I’m making.”
Of the toys she plans to collect, “Hopefully” she said “not all of them will fit” in the Caddy.”
“Everyone should experience what I have,” she said, “because I’m blessed.”