WINCHESTER — Community members doubled as elves Saturday afternoon when they teamed with Santa to hand gifts out to local children.

The Santa’s Helpers event — in its first year — buys presents for children of Winchester and Ashuelot, ranging from newborn to age 13.

Event coordinator Janet Marsh said she and several volunteers have been fundraising for the event since March, with more than $3,000 collected.

Letters were sent out to area schools to let the community know about the event, Marsh said. Interested parents would fill out a form with the child’s name, age and a few gift ideas.

“I don’t care if they’re rich or poor, it’s about all kids,” Marsh said. “It’s a day for the kids to just be happy.”

Seventy-seven children signed up, but Marsh said they purchased 90 gifts in case they needed extras.

Santa, who was escorted by Winchester police Detective Michael Carrier, arrived at the E.L.M.M. Community Center with his sack of gifts in tow.

Following hugs and waves to the sea of children who greeted him, Santa — Paul Sweetser of Hinsdale — settled into a big red chair on the community center’s stage.

He called upon each child one by one, handing them one gift and one stocking.

While the gifts varied from LEGO sets to baby dolls, each stocking came with a winter hat, mittens and a candy cane.

After their moment with Santa was up, most children ran back to their parents to open their presents.

Of those was Janis Clough, 2, She received a Minnie Mouse plush doll and a handful of rubber duckies — both at the top of her Christmas list, according to her mom, Susan.

Aside from the free gifts for three of her children, Susan said the event was a great opportunity to get her children out of the house in the winter months.

“It gives them a chance to see Santa ... and it’s so cold out, it gives them something to do,” she said.

Sheron Prentice, 60, said this event relieved some of the holiday pressure for her family.

Prentice’s grandchildren, Brooklyn, 5, and Brayden, 3, received a Barbie doll and a toy semi-truck, respectively.

“It’s tough this time of year for people to afford things. It’s tough for everybody,” she said. “I brought the kids to this to help out.”

And with the event deemed successful, Marsh said she’s already planning next year’s first fundraiser, with hopes to make the event annual.

“I’ve been wanting to do this for quite a while,” Marsh said. “It brings everybody together, and it means a lot to me.”

Olivia Belanger can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1439, or obelanger@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @OBelangerKS.