For 10 hours a day, six days a week, Lonnie Johnson has weathered the bitter cold of the Kansas wind all for the sake of charity.
Johnson is a Salvation Army bell ringer in Lawrence, Kan. During the months of November and December, bell ringers all across the country raise money to support their local Salvation Army Church.
“Many times I’ve been on the other side of the track,” Johnson said. “And I needed somebody to help me with my medicine. [The Salvation Army] is a great organization. I can’t say enough about it. Seven years strong, here I am.”
The Salvation Army is one of many charities that help local communities year round. During the holiday season, these charities go above and beyond to help lower-income families in their areas.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 46.5 million people living in poverty in 2012. The official poverty rate was 12.5 percent. In Lawrence, the poverty rate was 19.5 percent in 2010.
With such high rates of poverty, low-income parents face the stresses of providing their children with gifts and food on the holidays.
“When you take families who are having difficulties throughout the entire year making ends meet and you throw in toys at Christmas time, you want to be able to provide that,” said Lieutenant Marisa McCluer, corps officer at the Salvation Army in Lawrence. “I’ve seen the financial stress and financial burden manifest physically and emotionally. It’s really hard to stay stable.”
Charities all across the country work with families experiencing poverty to try to ease the burden of buying presents for their children.
In its first year of existence in 1947, the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots program collected 5,000 toys to be distributed to children. Six decades later that number has swelled to 16.8 million toys.
“The premise by which Toys for Tots was founded was that so many children don’t ever get anything new, they always get hand-me-downs,” said Mary Jones, Toys for Tots coordinator in Lawrence. “We want to give kids hope. We feel that every child deserves a little Christmas.”
While many children ask Santa Claus for a new bicycle or doll, some children are happy to receive the gift that keeps on giving — a book.
“A lot of times people only give toys and sometimes books are one thing that don’t get donated as much,” said Paige Welch, family connections coordinator at Ballard Community Services. “This is a great educational component. Some of the books teach so much as opposed to just the picture books with maybe Buzz Lightyear that kids see more of. They get their hands on a different type of book that maybe they’re not used to seeing.”
Ballard Community Services partnered with the Toy Store, located in downtown Lawrence, for the Give a Bear a Book program. For more than a month, Toy Store customers could buy and donate a book to this program. The Toy Store then matched the donation to the Ballard Center. The books are then distributed to the children who attend Ballard’s early childhood center, which provides childcare to children of low-income families.
Along with the tradition of exchanging gifts, providing their families with a Thanksgiving or Christmas feast is high up on many parents’ priority lists.
Harvesters Community Food Network is a food bank responsible for feeding about 66,000 people a week in northern Kansas and Missouri. In December, individuals in those areas organize Holiday Fixin’s Food Drives, in which they collect food that Harvesters then delivers to any one of its 620 food banks, churches or kitchens.
“This time of year our community tends to be a little more generous and they understand the importance of having a large meal,” said Sami Paxton, a food and fun drive specialist at Harvesters. “This food drive helps provide those extra things that would normally be harder to obtain with limited resources.”
According to the National Philanthropic Trust, there were 1.08 million charitable organizations in the U.S. in 2011. Whether you donate your time or your money, charities are always a great way to usher in the holiday season.
This will be Lonnie Johnson’s last year volunteering as a Salvation Army bell ringer in Lawrence. Soon he’s moving to Johnson County.
“It’s just right down the road,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of sentimentality here because I have so many good memories. You can’t beat the people of Lawrence and Douglas County, you just can’t.”
The Salvation Army was founded in 1865 in London. Since its foundation in the United States, the organization has served more than 30 million people.
Check out this infographic for more information on national charities and volunteers.
Kansas Appleseed, part of the national nonprofit organization Appleseed, made its way back to Kansas after a several year absence this August. Kansas Appleseed works with attorneys to assist with cases of injustice in Kansas.
For more information on how to volunteer with Kansas Appleseed, contact Benet Magnuson at firstname.lastname@example.org
Although September is Hunger Action Month, it’s never too late to join the fight to end hunger.
On Oct. 6, the United Way of Douglas County will host the Great Start Pack, a food-packaging event to benefit food-insecure families in the Lawrence, Kan., area.
The United States Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as an economic and social condition of unreliable access to food. According to the USDA, 14.5 percent of households in the U.S. were considered food-insecure in 2012.
“People will kind of move in and out of [food insecurity] based on what’s happening in their lives,” said Lori Johns, director of volunteer engagement at the United Way of Douglas County.
The Great Start Pack will package 40,000 meals. Just Food, the local food bank, then will distribute the food to the food-insecure families in Lawrence. Just Food’s mission is to provide nutritious food to those in poverty. According to its website, Just Food, along with other agencies, feeds more than 8,000 people per month.
The meals packaged at the Great Start Pack will consist of beans and rice, both staple foods for a healthy diet.
The food-packaging process is similar to an assembly line. At each stage, the beans and rice are carefully measured into bags and ingredients are added. Volunteers in the assembly line will add seasoning and vitamins and protein for nutritional value. Then the bags are passed off to be sealed.
Local chef Rick Martin and others will be at the Great Start Pack to offer demonstrations for the volunteers. The chefs will show how to cook nutritious meals on a budget, a skill that would benefit many food-insecure families.
“Too often people are spending a lot of money driving through fast-food places and they’re getting a lot of empty calories for a lot of money,” Johns said. “They could take that money and probably get several meals out of it, if they know how to prepare things.”
Eating a nutritious meal is essential for families who cannot rely on a consistent meal schedule.
The UWDC has an annual campaign designed to raise funds for events such as the Great Start Pack.
The campaign strives to raise more than $1.8 million through its many partners and donors.
Johns said that several hundred businesses and their employees make donations to the UWDC. Their generous donations make it possible for the UWDC to provide meals to Lawrence area families.
The Great Start Pack is one of many ways for volunteers to become more involved with the UWDC and community at-large.
Sierra Glasscock, a junior at the University of Kansas, knows exactly how valuable food-packaging events can be. She participated in one at Kansas City’s Harvesters Community Food Network in 2010. The packaged meals went out to families during the winter holiday season.
“It was a great way to understand the needs of our community,” Glasscock said. “To see how something as simple as organizing care packages for the holidays can make some family’s year.”
The Great Start Pack will be held at Prairie Park Elementary School. The event runs from 12:30 to 4 p.m.
Sign up to volunteer on the United Way Roger Hill website.
For more information on other volunteer opportunities, visit the volunteer opportunities on the United Way Roger Hill website.
I interviewed Emily Ferbezar, an intern at the United Way of Douglas County. Ferbezar is a senior at the University of Kansas majoring in Strategic Communications.