In September, thoughts of Christmas might seem premature.

A groupof civic leaders, however, want county residents to start giving serious thought to the coming holiday season.

Why? For the benefit of 18 North Carolina youngsters whose lives were devastated when they lost parents in a poultry-processing plant fire Sept. 3.

A group of business and government leaders announcedMonday a program to help youngsters from the small city of Hamlet, N.C., who were left orphaned when the fire killed 25 people.

"Quitesimply, we're here because somebody needs our help," Mayor Benjamin Brown, who heads the six-member committee, said Monday.

The project, Hands for Hamlet, will collect money, clothes, toys and other items, which will be delivered to the youngsters in time for Christmas.

Otherwise, the children likely wouldn't have much of a Christmas, Brown said.

"Our intent is to see that, as far as possible, we makeChristmas for these children in Hamlet as happy as their parents would have wanted it," he said.

Hamlet, a community of about 6,200 residents in south-central North Carolina, was rocked by the fire that broke out in a trough of scalding cooking oil at the Imperial Food Products chicken plant.

The blaze left 56 people injured and forced the closing of the plant, where 200 people were employed.

Workers trying to flee the flames and poisonous smoke rushed to building exits, only to find them locked or blocked. Others perished after trying to take refuge in a freezer.

Many of the dead and injured are single parents, making the needs of their children particularly pressing.Since the tragedy, some of the children who lost their only parent have moved in with grandparents or other relatives. Others will be placed in foster homes.

Brown said he was struck by Hamlet's plight after reading news reports of the fire.

"I realized that we have everything right here in Carroll County that Hamlet needed in this timeof need," he said.

Brown said he was moved to telephone Abbie Covington, the mayor of Hamlet, to offer condolences and help.

"I wasoverwhelmed," Covington said yesterday. "It was a unique approach toa problem. After the heat of the moment, people forget that these types of problems are ongoing, particularly for the children."

The idea of tying the assistance program to the holidays was particularly appealing, the mayor said.

"Christmas is a time that, if there areproblems in our lives, they seem to be magnified in our minds and inour hearts," she said.

"To feel supported and loved at Christmas seems to me to be particularly important."

The committee heading the project discussed the framework for the program Monday and said details will be announced in the coming days.

The members will begincanvassing area businesses for donations and appealing to residents to chip in, too.

City administrators will receive a list of names of the children, along with clothing sizes and perhaps Christmas "wish lists."

No goal will be established when the project begins because, Brown said, such preset objectives can be limiting.

"I simplywant us . . . to do our best," he said. "I happen to think our best is huge."

In addition to Brown and City Promotions Director Carol Donovan, the committee includes: David A. Cianelli, general manager of Cranberry Mall; Lou Rosenberg, sales and marketing manager of Prestige Cable TV; Edward H. Shur, editor of The Carroll County Sun; and Helen Utz, executive director of the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce.

"We're sincerely grateful for everything everyone has done, andwe're particularly grateful for someone having the foresight that there will be something other than immediate needs for these children,"Covington said.

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