Head cook Nathaniel Roberts prepares dinner at the Albany Rescue Mission on Monroe Street Tuesday. Many local charity organizations are feeling the financial strain of a down economy during the Christmas season.
ALBANY -- Christmas is a time families like to come together in a comfortable home for a feast of turkey or ham and all the tasty trimmings. The unfortunate fact is that many of our neighbors may be pressed for a place to stay or anything at all to eat.
Most of us are glad to know that organizations such as the Lord's Pantry, the Albany Rescue Mission, the Salvation Army and others stand ready to provide at least the basic necessities for those less fortunate or who have fallen on hard times.
According to Capt. Doug McClure of the Albany Salvation Army, simple human needs grow larger during the holiday months.
"Temperatures dip to their lowest this time of year, especially toward the end of December through January and February," McClure said. "That raises the cost of heating, sometimes to the point where families can no longer afford it. The Salvation Army tries to provide emergency help with that. Those who are homeless and have been sleeping outdoors are often driven to the shelters."
McClure said there are other pressures on family income this time of year, including the desire to provide Christmas toys for young children.
"The Salvation Army tends to specialize in providing temporary relief rather than permanent help," McClure said. "In the last few years, we've partnered with the Marine Corps Base in their Toys for Tots program. With some of the issues at hand today, some people don't think toys are important, but no one wants their children to be without toys on Christmas day.
"The financial pressure can stretch a family into other shortages. The Toys for Toys program helps prevent that pressure, I believe."
According to McClure, 689 families registered to receive toys through the program this year -- 110 more than in 2010. The increased goal will be met, McClure said, but Marine Corps Logistics Base-Albany and the Salvation Army have always found worthy destinations for surplus toys.
Of greater concern to McClure is the "kettle program," the traditional bell-ringing campaign conducted at retail locations every Christmas. According to McClure, those donations are down nearly $4,000, or 15 percent of the agency's annual budget, since the same time last season. Over the past few years, the Salvation Army has increasingly relied on volunteer help to keep the bells ringing.
"About 30 percent of those at our kettles are volunteers this year," McClure said. "We've gotten a lot of really good help for that. Kids from Deerfield have given us help, as well as the Lee County Kiwanis Club, Heritage Bank, SB&T and the Moose Lodge. I'm probably leaving some people out. We could always use more volunteers, but we've been really blessed."
According to McClure, while assistance from the Salvation Army includes help with utilities, food and lodging, the help is provided with a temporary intent. Counselors and referrals are provided to help bring recipients from their difficulties and to introduce them to proper agencies. To donate to the Salvation Army or to inquire about services, call (229) 435-1428.
Offering assistance which can be of a more permanent nature are organizations such as the Lord's Pantry. Tom Wilburn, a volunteer since 2001, said that while some people may require clothing only once or food a few times, some of the people they help are "long-term" residents or return on a regular basis.
"We're here to meet a need," Wilburn said, "and there's plenty of need. People show up here not only from Albany but from Dawson, Mitchell, Worth and Lee counties. We don't have many restrictions. Right now we're helping a woman with 11 children, a single homeless man and lots of others."
Wilburn said that files are kept on all the people who have benefited from the Lord's Pantry. The files are deactivated every six or seven years, he said, but "literally thousands" of active files exist at a given time.
"Henry Duggan started the Lord's Pantry about 30 years ago," Wilburn said. "He was a social worker at Phoebe Putney and saw the need. People would be treated for something there and be released, but didn't have food at home when they left the hospital."
The Lord's Pantry provides food and clothing for the needy, Wilburn said, and doesn't charge for either. The agency receives no tax dollars but is supported entirely by donations from area churches and individuals. The organization provides up to 16,000 parcels of food and 56,000 articles of clothing each year. Donations are down from past years, Wilburn said, but "every once in a while you get a surprise, especially during the holidays."
"The other day a man came in and said he wanted to make a $500 donation," he said. "Turned out he was someone we'd helped a few years ago. He was doing much better and wanted to help others in need."
In the past, the Lord's Pantry bought food from Walmart, Wilburn said, until the establishment of the Second Harvest Food Bank in Albany. Now the organization spends an average of about 19 cents per pound for all types of food delivered to its door. The food bank purchases are supplemented by independent donations and "special deals" found by the organization from time to time.
To donate to the Lord's Pantry or to volunteer, call (229) 435-0911.
Another local agency dedicated to helping those in need is the Albany Rescue Mission. Like the other charitable agencies, the organization is experiencing greater need but still considers itself "blessed," according to Larry Hample, mission director.
"There's no reason for anyone in Albany to go hungry," Hample said. "God puts it into people's hearts to give and they give. We haven't had to give up any meals or turn anyone away. We've been blessed."
Hample said the Albany Rescue Mission serves three meals a day and receives "no government funds whatsoever" but is supported by donations from individuals and organizations.
The mission thrift store is another source of revenue for the Rescue Mission, according to Hample, who said that donated clothing is cleaned and freshened up for sale at the store.
Hample said that his organization provides up to 10,000 meals each month, as well as clothing and lodging as needed.
"The things we do are under the radar," he said. "Turn on your TV, and you'll see all the high-profile things for the holidays. But we feed and provide for real people the rest of the year."
To donate or volunteer services for the Albany Rescue Mission, call (229) 435-7615.