LEE - After a year hiatus, the Laliberte Toy Fund has returned under new management to brighten the holidays for less fortunate children.
The fund, which went dormant in 2012 during a yearlong federal investigation, has been revived as a separate entity from the original one set up more than 50 years ago, according Lee Selectman Patricia Carlino. Carlino, Town Treasurer Donna Toomey and Town Clerk Suzanne Scarpa will oversee the reestablished fund that has official nonprofit status.
"We started at zero with our first donation from Dresser Hull [ Lumber and Building Supply] who gave us the $155 made from selling ice cream during Founders Weekend," Carlino said.
The three women have set a goal of $5,000, with donations being accepted immediately by mail or dropped off in person at Lee Bank. The fundraising has started a month earlier than in previous years, in hopes of reviving the community's half-century of support for the holiday charity. Traditionally, the fund kicked off Thanksgiving weekend and lasted through New Year's Day.
" With everything that happened, we don't know what to expect," said Scarpa, referring to former Lee Police Chief Joseph Buffis, who faces federal charges of allegedly stealing from the fund he managed for more than 30 years.
Families seeking toys through the fund have until Nov. 27 to make requests, according to organizers. Applications are available at the Town Clerk's office, Lee Library, Lee Bank or by email Lalibertetoyfund@gmail.com. In recent years, the toy fund serving children in Lee, Tyringham and Lenox Dale annually raised more than $8,000, money spent on gifts for approximately 125 youngsters in the Lee area.
Toy fund organizers say they want to maintain the fund's name in honor of the former longtime Lee police officer who initiated the holiday goodwill.
The fund was founded in 1958 by Edward J. Laliberte and was named for him after his death in the 1980s.
While Carlino, Toomey and Scarpa are public officials, they made it clear the toy fund is in no way connected to town government and all three are acting as private citizens.
"The need is great in our area and we wanted to keep [ Laliberte's] legacy going," Toomey said.
"We felt it was the responsibility of the community to get involved," added Carlino.
She noted the plan is to continue the tradition of publishing the list of donors, who wished to be named, in local newspapers.
Buffis controlled the fund from 1979 to late 2012, but discontinued it last year due to the federal probe. In August, a federal grand jury indicted Buffis on charges, that he subsequently pleaded not guilty to in federal court, that he pocketed a $4,000 donation from the fund in exchange for dropping a criminal case against a Lee couple.
Two weeks after the indictment, Town Administrator Robert Nason, backed by the Board of Selectmen, fired Buffis for billing the town $5,000 to pay for his personal cellphone family plan. Town officials were unaware of the expenditure that Buffis, through his attorney, said was part of his negotiated contract when he became chief in September 2011. Nason denied Buffis' claim.
Buffis oversaw thefund after joining the Lee Police department 34 years ago, taking the reins from Laliberte when he retired in 1979.