TICONDEROGA - Christmas comes early to Helen Gibbs every year.
Gibbs is the long-time head of the Tiny Tim Christmas Wish program in Ticonderoga, which provides gifts to needy children in the Ti-Putnam-Hague area.
"This is my Christmas," Gibbs said as she sorted through hundreds of gifts last week. "Since Ken (her husband) died, this is the way I celebrate Christmas. I'll go to my daughter-in-law's for Christmas dinner and I'll enjoy it, but this is my Christmas."
Gibbs has been part of the Tiny Tim program for 18 years. Every year is special because of the people who are helped, she said.
"This year we're helping a family whose mother just had surgery to remove a tumor," Gibbs said. "The mother-in-law came to stay with them to help out and she was just diagnosed with cancer. It's a family that needs help. It's wonderful we can provide it."
Then there was the year Gibbs was shopping in a local store when she was approached by a small girl.
"She said, 'I know you'," Gibbs recalled. "I assured her she didn't, but she said, 'You're the lady who helps Santa Claus.' It brought tears to my eyes."
Gibbs has a lot of stories like that.
The Tiny Tim program started in 1980 when a group of Ticonderoga Central School teachers realized the need. The program grew to the point the teachers could no longer handle the demand.
"In January of 1989 there was an article in the Times of Ti that the program was disbanding," Gibbs recalled. "They just couldn't do it any more; it had gotten too expensive.
"It really bothered me when I thought about it, that there were so many kids who needed things," she continued. "I made a call to see if I could help. This is my 18th Christmas."
She became Tiny Tim chairwoman in 1995.
There have been a lot of changes during the years. Tiny Tim no longer accepts or distributes used items and gifts are no longer wrapped.
And, Tiny Tim has grown. It started out giving away winter coats. Now each child gets six pair of socks, six sets of underwear, a jacket, ski pants, boots, clothing and toys.
This year Tiny Tim will serve 73 families and 170 children. The record is 204 children served several years ago.
It costs more than $6,000 a year to operate the Tiny Tim program, Gibbs said.
The confidential program decides who gets holiday help using the school's free and reduced lunch income guidelines, Gibbs explained. Parents must complete applications. That application includes questions about the children in the homes, such as clothing sizes and gender. This year only two applications were rejected.
"We've had years when we've rejected more, but the guidelines are pretty clear and most people know if they qualify," Gibbs said.
The Tiny Tim Christmas Wish program only has four permanent members. Gibbs handles the paperwork. Stephanie Backus organizes the collection and distribution of gifts. Pat and David Cornell do the fund raising.
Also helping are a host of community organizations, businesses and individuals who contribute to the program.
"I really appreciate everything everyone does to help," Gibbs said. "It actually gets easier every year. We have it down to a science."
Christmas morning Gibbs will awake with the satisfaction of knowing she helped make the holiday a bit brighter for nearly 200 area children.
"One year I got a call on Christmas morning," Gibbs recalled. "It was from a mother whose teen-age son had wanted a science kit. She said he couldn't stop crying, he was so happy. It made me feel pretty good, too."