Charities ask Vermonters to donate during holidays

Posted Nov. 24, 2011, at 8:34 p.m.

MONTPELIER, Vt. — Workers at the only food pantry in Vermont’s largest city started to get nervous when they had no turkeys to give away less than two weeks before Thanksgiving.

With the economy in shambles and people already generously assisting flood victims from Tropical Storm Irene, they worried that donors could be tapped out.

But the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf in Burlington put out a call for turkeys. In less than a week, Vermont residents pulled through again, donating 2,700 holiday birds.

“It speaks to the generosity of Vermonters, how Vermonters come together to help each other out,” said Rob Meehan, director of the food pantry.

It’s a hopeful sign for other charitable organizations that have the same worries about this year’s holiday donations. Millions of dollars have been raised across the state and beyond for Vermont residents whose homes or businesses were damaged by Irene flooding. But the people who were struggling before the Aug. 28 storm are still in need. They include residents who have lost their jobs and can’t afford to pay food and fuel bills.

“As people are giving, we’re really hopeful that people aren’t making it about either disaster assistance or helping the local community but really that people dig very deep and do both,” said Martha Maksym, executive director of the United Way of Chittenden County.

Donations are down about 10 to 13 percent in November for the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf, which raises about one-third of its $1 million budget from the public — while the need is up about 20 percent to 12,000 people served a year.

“I think Vermonters really came together to help each other out during the flood. And I think we’re asking and asking and people can only give so much. That’s part of it,” Meehan said.

Food pantries around the state are seeing more people who have never needed to use one before — and may have even donated to one — but now rely on them to get by.

Christine Foster, chief development officer for the Vermont Foodbank, said the pantry serves about 86,000 people a year, up from under 70,000 four years ago. She said the people the organization serves are in an emergency situation every day.

“If they don’t have enough food to feed their family, that day is an emergency,” Foster said.

There’s a lot of concern among pantry officials about what happens after the holidays.

People aren’t so charitable anymore, said Rosemary Tefft, operations manager for the Deerfield Valley Food Pantry in Wilmington, where the number of households served has nearly doubled since the Irene flooding.

“What are we going to see down the road?” Tefft said.

“We have a lot of people that are simply out of jobs because the places they worked don’t exist anymore,” she said.

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