BELFAST, Maine — Thanksgiving and Christmas are holidays of joy but also of need.
It is a time of year when families get together to reminisce about the past and dream about the future. It is also a time when people get together to help those less fortunate.
People for People and Waldo County Community Action Partners have worked for years to assist those families in need by providing holiday gift boxes of food.
This year the two non-profit groups are trying to raise $64,000 to cover the cost of the more than 1,700 food boxes that will be distributed to Waldo County families over the holidays. Volunteers will deliver about 650 food boxes for Thanksgiving and 1,100 for Christmas.
“It’s a home-grown thing for us to get together for the holidays and do a small act of kindness for these families in need,” said People for People founder Paul Garelli. “As soon as all these people come out of the woodwork to put this thing together, they all disappear. Then next year comes around and it all happens again.”
Garelli, owner of Center Point Large Print in Knox, founded People for People 24 years ago while he was working for Thorndike Press. A woman he knew, who was on state assistance at the time, was wrapping Christmas presents for families less fortunate than she. He said he was inspired by the woman and decided on the spot to emulate her charity.
“This woman didn’t have anything herself and here she was helping others. It touched me,” Garelli recalled. “I said ‘If she could do this for four families, maybe we can do 40. The charity I saw her giving really inspired me and that started the process. Once you start a process, it’s awful tough to stop it.”
Over the years, People for People has raised more than $550,00 for the project, almost entirely through private donations from local businesses and individuals. The organization has never turned away a request for a meal.
At 5:30 a.m. Saturday, more than 200 volunteers gathered at the Tarratine Hall in Belfast to pack and distribute the Thanksgiving food boxes throughout the county. The boxes included a turkey, potatoes, onions, fruits and other vegetables and a pie. The food was purchased at a discount from Swan Lake Grocery in Swanville and Tozier’s Market in Searsport.
Holly Miller, a Belfast Area High School senior, was one of those who pitched in for the cause on Saturday with her peer leadership group. Miller was on the crew assembling cardboard boxes and then helped load them onto waiting pickup trucks and vans for distribution.
“I really enjoyed it,” Miller said. “I wanted to do something to help others.”
Mandy Sawyer of Waldo CAP said food boxes were provided for any family that applied for one. Unlike some programs, there were no income guidelines for the food boxes. The applications were available at town halls and schools throughout the county and were double-checked through the Neighbor For Neighbor program to avoid duplicating deliveries to the same household.
Sawyer said the program would not be possible without the generosity of the community and the many volunteers who come forward.
“It’s pretty amazing,” she said. “It’s like a crazy assembly line and we couldn’t do it without everyone helping out.”
Garelli said People for People operates without overhead, salaries, rent or fundraising and promotional costs. Recent statistics indicate that more than 10 percent of Maine’s households, about 140,000, experienced food insecurity, and one-third of the population have incomes at or below the poverty level. More than 40 percent of Maine children under the age of 12 show some evidence of hunger.
Each dollar that is collected goes directly to the creation of the food boxes, he said.
“We never know how many people are going to show up but every year it seems to work out fine,” Garelli said. “It grew extremely rapidly the first seven or eight years and continues to grow because the need is still there. A lot of it goes to families, but we also have a substantial number of low-income, elderly seniors that we help, too. It’s a simple Waldo County thing that we’re doing.”
A tax deductible donation of $30 will provide a holiday meal. Those wishing to contribute to the program can send their checks to People for People, Box 1 Thorndike 04986 or Box 372, Belfast 04915.