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Charities Need A Helping Hand This Christmas

Clipped from the St.Catharines Standard

There’s something of a frantic edge to Freida Overholster’s voice. And for a good reason.

There is always a seemingly self-replicating pile of work for the Salvation Army to do over the Christmas season. As a program co-ordinator, Overholster is always busy.

Normally, the organization starts getting its holiday programs in order in October and hits the ground running come November.

But not this year.

Last month, the Salvation Army’s army of local volunteers was busy helping families put out by the devastating fire at an apartment block on Roehampton Avenue.

“That just kept us so busy,” Overholster said. “Things we would normally have done for the holiday programs, we are only getting to now.”

The Salvation Army isn’t alone. On North Street, workers at Community Care of St. Catharines and Thorold are scrambling to play catch-up while at the same time they are registering people for the annual holiday program.

“You don’t realize how vulnerable you are as an organization until something like the Roehampton fire happens,” said Community Care CEO Betty-Lou Souter. “When something like that happens, it does seriously drain your resources.”

Trouble is, there isn’t much of a break for organizations like the Salvation Army and Community Care. Thousands of local families are in need of help each year.

Last year, Community Care had 2,800 families signed up for its holiday program. That isn’t an encouraging number for Souter. She said the worst year on record was 1995, when about 3,000 families asked for help with food, clothes and toys for children.

Those numbers have been creeping back up toward 3,000 for the last several years, and if Friday – the first day people could register for Community Care’s program – is any indication, 2007 isn’t going to be an improvement.

Before 9 a.m., hundreds of people were lined up at Community Care’s offices. When the doors opened, many had already been waiting hours, sitting in lawnchairs.

Before lunch, the line stretched across Community Care’s parking lot.

Inside, people were packed so densely in a single hallway the air quickly became hot and stale. Volunteers walked the hallways, with boxes of candy canes to try to keep the mood light.

Every holiday season is a struggle for Community Care, which seems perpetually short of donations. And although Christmas programs are just starting, the food bank finds its shelves nearly bare.

Community Care has a serious shortage of winter clothes for men, particularly winter boots. Groceries stocked on shelves are growing thin.

While Community Care starts sorting out its Christmas programs, the Salvation Army is doing the same.

The most visible program the organization runs is its kettle campaign, where volunteers ring Christmas bells near plastic donation containers. In fact, the program is the only source of funding for the Salvation Army’s holiday programs.

“It all started with black kettles,” said Sharlene Dupuis, a Salvation Army Christmas Cheer co-ordinator who oversees the kettle program. “Over time, the kettles became the clear plastic balls.”

Dupuis and Overholster said working on the Roehampton fire has tired out many volunteers, leaving the organization in need of some fresh help for the holidays.

“Working on something that big really does tire people out,” Overholster said.

“So we really would encourage people to volunteer.”

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