Monday, December 29, 2008

Food pantry gives away toys, food for Christmas, sees demand continue to rise

Families from Athens, Meigs and Washington counties poured into the tiny Athens County village of Torch recently, stopping at a small, indiscriminate building to find Christmas presents for their children.

Inside the building, the Friends and Neighbors Community Food Pantry was holding its annual Christmas toy giveaway program. The program is designed to provide enough toys for 100 families, but Director Lisa Roberts said that this year additional families called and asked about toys after the registration deadline, so she hoped to be able to provide for 115 families.

“I’ve never done anything like this before,” said one Meigs County resident while picking out presents for her children. “If it wasn’t for this, my kids wouldn’t have any Christmas presents this year.”

The woman is unable to work because of her disability, so she tries to survive on her disability income. She does not have enough money each month to pay most of her bills, and this year she knew that for the first time she would not be able to afford to buy Christmas gifts for her children.

“I’m not allowed to buy my own home,” she added. She can barely pay the rent as it is, and said it has been getting harder every day to get by. This year has been the worst, which is why she had to visit the Christmas present giveaway program. Her children have been adjusting well to the tough economic situation at home, but the woman was very happy to have the presents to give them.

Roberts said every year she hears stories similar to this woman’s, stories of people who are just struggling to get by.

“It’s worse this year,” Roberts said. The high gas prices hurt people earlier in the year, the rising prices for groceries and other items have had an impact, and the national economic problems have just made things tougher for many people.

“As winter comes on, it presents another challenge,” Roberts added. Many people have to pay high utility bills during the winter months. Even if they receive funding from home heating assistance programs, that funding often does not get them through the whole winter.

Flu season is also tough on many families living in poverty, Roberts added. Over-the-counter medications can be expensive, but people often need the medicine for themselves or their children. When you add in trying to buy Christmas presents and serving a special Christmas meal at home, it can all cost too much for many families, Roberts said.

The Friends and Neighbors Community Food Pantry toy giveaway program was held over three days, Dec. 18,19 and 20, and provided a lot of toys for families in need. Each family could pick up stuffed animals, large toys, small toys, electronic toys, dolls, coloring books, socks, underwear, sweaters, coats, hats, gloves and other types of items.

“We started working on this in January,” Roberts explained. The food pantry takes donations and saves up items throughout the year, and also buys many of the presents at summer yard sales. Area residents also donate money to the center for the program, and that allows the volunteers to buy toys from local stores. This year, the center also held a Chinese auction where they raffled off Christmas decorations and raised more than $300 for the Christmas present program.

The pantry also held extra food giveaway programs, where local families could pick up items especially for a Christmas meal.

Like many food pantries, Friends and Neighbors operates out of small buildings and humble surroundings. Volunteers run the operation, and many of them have received food and other items from the pantry previously.

But while the Friends and Neighbors program may look small and simple, it is providing a huge service to people in need, and it made Christmas much warmer and memorable to more than 100 families this year. For more information on the Friends and Neighbors programs, call Roberts at (740) 667-0684.