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Aid workers say holiday donations trail needs

Amid a holiday season rife with need across the country, aid workers report a disturbing and growing need for assistance all year round.
Image: child receiving gift
John Mulvaney, Navistar Financial's chief financial officer, plays Santa Claus on Wednesday in Chicago as he and his staff handed the gifts to excited students, including Tia Martins, left, who had written "letters to Santa."Charles Rex Arbogast / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A Salvation Army shelter in a well-to-do Kansas county has an unprecedented waiting list that includes families who've lost their homes to foreclosure.

In Florida, a real estate agent who said she was having a tough time making it this year sought assistance from a food bank for herself and her children. And in Maryland, one agency that serves families said it's seeing more young, working, single mothers who move into shelters and ask family members to care for their kids. They just can't afford rent.

Stories like these tell of a holiday season rife with need across the country, but also what aid workers are calling a disturbing and growing need for assistance all year.

Everywhere, people are feeling the crunch of rising gasoline and grocery prices, as well as utility bills, rent and mortgage payments. Those factors also are cutting into people's ability to donate.

"Not only can they not give, many — for the first time — have need and are coming to us," said Melissa Temme, a spokeswoman for the Salvation Army, where stories like that of the overflow at the Johnson County Family Lodge in Kansas are becoming increasingly common.

Last year, 4.8 million Americans got holiday assistance from the Salvation Army, everything from meals and clothing to gifts.

It is too early to tell if those numbers will go up this year. But while her organization generally sees a surge in giving of gifts and at kettles right before Christmas, Temme said she's sensed a general unease among staff about the level of need that's out there.

A growing need for food
Others said the same.

"This isn't a holiday shortage, per se. This is a shortage that's been building," said Ross Fraser, a spokesman for America's Second Harvest, a domestic hunger-relief organization based in Chicago. At Thanksgiving, the organization estimates that food banks nationally were short a total of 15 million pounds of food, or roughly 11.7 million meals.

Since then, his agency has heard about recent shortages at food banks, from New York, Illinois and Tennessee to Texas and California. One food bank in Dallas reports having to spend $100,000 a month buying food, because of declining donations of excess food from grocery stores and farmers through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"I don't think anybody ever thought food banks would be going out and buying food," Fraser said.

One food bank in Orlando, Fla., he said, told of a single mother who was forced to get food donations because her income as a real estate agent fell from $66,000 last year to just $18,000 this year, due to slumping housing sales.

Officials urge pledges during year
Rebecca Wagner, executive director of Community Ministry of Montgomery County, Md., also has seen the need for emergency aid growing among the working poor.

"Before they were cobbling together three and four jobs to make ends meet," Wagner said. "Now that utility bill is a backbreaker."

She's been encouraging donors to make pledges beyond the holiday season — for instance for utility bills and rent next year.

"Toys and bags of oranges only go so far when you can't keep your heat on," Wagner said. But, she adds, families always appreciate the help at the holidays, too.

"All of it helps," she said.

Considering that individual donors represent about three-quarters of all charitable contributions, it means the last few months of giving in a year are critical, said Albert Ruesga of The Meyer Foundation, which funds aid organizations in Washington, D.C., and beyond.

"The giving that happens around the holiday season is really the lifeblood of many organizations that serve our poorest communities," he said.

Firms pledge donations, food
Corporate donations are also key.

Wal-Mart recently announced that it would donate 50 truckloads of food and grocery items to America's Second Harvest, while ConAgra Foods will donate 35 truckloads and pledged to match individual donations to America's Second Harvest up to $200,000.

Many others focus on local giving.

That includes Navistar Financial Corp., the Schaumburg, Ill.-based finance subsidiary of the International Truck and Engine Corporation.

Among other things, employees from the company give gifts each year to hundreds of students at the Lafayette Specialty School, a school that serves toddlers all the way up to eighth-graders in Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood.

John Mulvaney, Navistar Financial's chief financial officer, recently played Santa Claus as he and his staff handed out the gifts to excited students who'd written "letters to Santa."

Tia Martins, a fourth-grader, was one of those. She asked for an electronic diary, "so I can write all the things that happened to me, so I would never forget them."

"It means a lot to me that people that I don't even know would go out and spend their hard-earned money on me," Tia said. "Even though I don't get a lot of gifts, I'm still happy with what I have, not what I could've had."