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Help for the holidays

Posted on November 20, 2013 by Lethbridge Sun Times

Photo submitted by Danielle McIntyre/Interfaith Food Bank

Leslie Darjes collects toys for Interfaith Food Bank as part of the joint Christmas hamper program conducted along with the Lethbridge Food Bank and the Salvation Army.

The holiday season is a special time for many, marking the renewal of cherished traditions: gathering boxes of decorations from years past to adorn the family Christmas tree, watching the snow fall with a cup of hot chocolate while viewing a favourite holiday move, and of course, being surrounded by those who mean the most while watching the joy on a loved one’s face when they open that perfect gift.

For those less fortunate, however, the holidays can be a stressful time; when many are desperately trying to make ends meet, saving money for the extra expenses Christmas incurs often seems impossible. That’s why three community agencies are working together to bring cheer and charity to those who need it most this season.

For the seventh consecutive year, the Interfaith Food Bank, the Lethbridge Food Bank and the Salvation Army have joined forces to provide Christmas hampers filled with food and toys for those in need. Because the organizations share clientele, the joint effort will maximize resources, says Danielle McIntyre, executive director of the Interfaith Food Bank.

“Basically, it was a logistical issue in the sense that all of our agencies work very hard to fill the needs of families in the community, and we (all have) limited resources,” McIntyre says. “We figured if we’re all doing this and everyone’s taking a little piece, why don’t we just put everything in a giant pile and share the responsibilities of doing the same job.”

During the year, the Lethbridge Food Bank and Interfaith Food Bank specialize in providing emergency food services to the community, while the Salvation Army typically provides clothing, furniture and other household items. It’s estimated that the Salvation Army in Lethbridge serves approximately 200 households per year.

In 2012, more than 33,000 people were served between the two food banks; 43 per cent were children. According to the annual Hunger Count Survey conducted by Food Banks Canada in March, more than 833,000 people in Canada accessed food banks; while that number is still high, it represents a 4.5 per cent decrease compared to 2012. The numbers are decreasing provincially and locally, too.

“At Interfaith we saw a decrease of 12 per cent, so you can see that it’s just consistently getting better,” says McIntyre. She adds the biggest reason for the decrease is most likely the health of the economy.

“When times are tough, more people come to the food bank,” she says. “When times are better, we see fewer families. We’ve seen increases in the number of people who are working that are coming to the food bank, which is discouraging on the one side because it’s saying that you can be working and still not have enough to feed your family.”

Clientele also includes people on social assistance or disability supports, employment insurance, or those simply in short-term financial crisis. McIntyre says she feels positive about the decrease but notes that things could always be better.

“It feels fantastic to not have to serve as many families,” she says. “One of the things we always have to acknowledge is that the families that are moving out will be replaced by families moving in. We have to remember that almost half of the people we serve can’t work; they need those disability supports. We still do see relatively high levels of need. If we’re talking pre-recession numbers, it’s going to take a few years before we can get back to that.”

However, things are looking positive for the joint Christmas campaign. According to a press release, the group plans to serve 2,000 households this Christmas, approximately the same number served last year.

How the campaign works: as of Nov. 1, clientele are encouraged to visit their “home” food bank. When they sign up for their regular November hamper, they will also be registered for the Christmas program in December. If someone has never received assistance from the food bank, they can register at any of the three agencies. To receive assistance, people must provide identification and Alberta health-care cards for everyone in the household, proof of address and proof of income. Once screened and approved, the person’s name is added to a common registration system. Clients are given a membership card which allows them to receive one hamper per calendar month carrying five to seven days’ worth of food. This includes staples such pasta, beans, oatmeal, canned vegetables and fruit, cereal and peanut butter.

The December hamper, however, carries some special supplies in addition.

“Basically it’s going to have your standard pantry items,” says McIntyre. “On top of that, for Christmas you’re going to get the special things like turkey, ham, or chicken, stuffing, cranberry mix, pickles, crackers and cookies. We have a special Christmas goodie bundle so you’ve got snacks and treats to put out when you have family or friends coming over at the holiday season.”

Clients can pick up their hampers at their regular food bank between Dec. 9 and 20. If clients have children under 17, they can also register for a toy bundle which they can pick up at the Salvation Army’s Christmas centre between Dec. 16 and 20.

“After you’ve registered for your toy bundle, then you would go on the distribution days and go down to the Salvation Army to pick up a big black garbage bag full of toys for you to put underneath the tree for your children,” says McIntyre.

It’s estimated that the initiative will provide toys for 1,500 children this year. Some of the toys are donated. However, Salvation Army Capt. Raelene Russell says they will purchase toys if necessary.

“Teen gifts are often the most difficult, so typically it means acquiring gift cards for them,” says Russell. “If we get insufficient donations, then we will ensure the financial resources we get are utilized to acquire what’s missing so that no child that’s registered goes without a gift at Christmas.”

The Salvation Army acquires information on family size, the number of children per household, their ages, genders and interests to ensure the appropriate gifts are given.

Between Dec. 2 and 6, the two food banks will carry only bread and produce in order to prepare for the volume of supplies they will need to hand out.

“It allows us the ability to stockpile hampers and to make sure we have enough goodie bags packed and to ensure we have a toy for every child that’s registered,” says McIntyre.

She adds all organizations need to be extremely effective at communicating with one another to ensure success.

“We have to communicate on who’s registered, where are they registered and what are they getting,” says McIntyre. “Between our two food banks we have a joint computer system, so then we just have to communicate very well with the Salvation Army. The Salvation Army does not serve the volume of clients that the two food banks do, which is why they can take on the job of doing the toys for us.”

The organizations work to recruit the supplies they’re going to need from the community through donations and other events. Should they fall short, the group pools its money together to purchase supplies.

“We work together to find all the pricing: who’s best to buy the ham from and who’ s best to buy the turkey from and then we pile it all together,” says McIntyre. She adds grocery stores, as well as the community in general, is excellent at helping the organization continue running smoothly.

“[The support is] everything to us,” she says. “As a food bank we have no sustainable funding. There is no government in the background that throws money at us to make sure our services continue. Everything we give out is because somebody gave it to us. Our community’s really stepped up. People feel good when they help other people.”

People can donate to any of the three agencies to support the Christmas effort. Russell and McIntyre agree the community is pleased that the organizations are maximizing resources to do things fairly and accurately. McIntyre adds it’s nice to provide people with a break this time of year.

“I like Christmas for the sake that this is the one time of the year that we really get to do something special,” she says. “I feel like our families struggle all the time to meet basic needs and if we can give them a break at any time, why not Christmas?”

“So many of our families are able to manage January to November, but for the additional expenses of Christmas they can’t stretch the dollars any further,” adds Russell.

“To be able to support them in this way and know that there are little faces who will just light up with joy on Christmas day because of something that we’ve done, it makes it all worthwhile.”

To find out more or donate, visit http://www.christmashope.ca.

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