Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Food for the soul—and the hungry

Local groups help those in need over holidays

Express Staff Writer

Youth and adult volunteers serve a special holiday meal at St. Charles Parish Hall in Hailey. Nonprofit groups across the valley make special efforts to feed the hungry over the holidays. Photo by David N. Seelig

Along with peace on earth and goodwill toward men, Christmas is known as the season of giving. Nonprofit organizations throughout the valley preach helping those in need throughout the entire year, but many organizations make a special effort to feed the hungry and help those in need over the holidays.

Holiday Baskets

The Sun Valley Board of Realtors, formerly known as the Sawtooth Board of Realtors, has been raising money for and putting together holiday baskets for families in need for years, said Realtor Robin Christensen, though the program has been in existence for decades.

"It's evolved, obviously," she said.

Christensen, an agent at McCann Daech Fenton, took over the program for the Sun Valley Board of Realtors in 2002. Before that, the program was started by a number of area churches and supported by local businesses, including the Idaho Mountain Express.

Now, the program provides a holiday meal for more than 400 families in the county each year. The traditional version of the basket includes cranberry sauce, flour, cooking oil, potatoes and a $25 gift certificate to Albertsons—"everything they need to make a holiday meal," Christensen said.

Another option available to families includes corn flour, jalapeños, rice, beans and other vegetables.

"It's not fancy, but it can definitely make a difference in their holiday," Christensen said.

The baskets also include an article of clothing and a toy for each child in the family, as well as toothbrushes donated by local dentists. Most of the toys come from the annual Toy Run, a motorcycle road run in October that helps collect toys and funding for the baskets, and from King's discount stores, a regional chain with a branch in Hailey.

Between the two, Christensen said, the board generally collects around 350 toys. She said that's still short of what's needed, but the community almost always steps in and helps fill the gap. She said she's had community members donate 50 Barbie dolls when the board was seriously behind on toys.

"It just brings a tear to your eyes that people are so generous," she said. "Even though times are really tough and our numbers have increased, people are willing to help. It's just incredible."

The board fundraises throughout the year, even participating in the Great Wagon Days Duck Race to help support the baskets. The board has also launched major charity activities in the past few years, raising money to put a roof on the Senior Connection building in Hailey, for those fighting the Castle Rock Fire and for the Special Olympics.

"[Baskets] are not the only thing that we do, but it's a big thing that we do," Christensen said.

Monetary donations to the baskets are always accepted, and cans for spare change are located in grocery stores across the valley. Checks should be made out to the Sun Valley Board of Realtors Community Foundation and sent to Box 1937, Ketchum, ID 83340. More information can be obtained by calling Christensen at 720-2905.

The Hunger Coalition

"We feed people 364 days a year," said Jeanne Liston, executive director for the Hunger Coalition in Bellevue.

Though the food bank does not provide a special meal for the holidays, it does fundraise and help the Sun Valley Board of Realtors with its holiday basket program.

Liston said she has seen an increase in the number of families who have contacted the organization over the past few months, though she attributes that increase to the season rather than the holidays themselves.

She said the number of people the organization feeds in Bellevue has nearly doubled over the past week. The organization feeds between 180 to 350 families a month through its mobile food bank, and provides a box of food for families over Thanksgiving. This year, the number of families who received the holiday meal jumped to 350 from 290 in 2010.

Liston said the increase is typical of what she's been seeing this season.

"What we're seeing is an increase in the level of desperation in the people who come through our doors," she said. "It's a lot of former homeowners, a lot of former business owners who have held on for far too long. When they come to us, they have nothing left. It's frightening, really."

The organization continues to raise funds, and over the holiday season sells paper luminaries for $1 that Hailey residents buy and light on the Sunday before Christmas (Dec. 18 this year). Liston said the event raised more than $5,000 this year.

"I look at it as lights of hope," Liston said. "It's really inspiring to see."

Residents who wish to help are urged to make monetary donations rather than donating food, as the organization often gets discounts on food products that can help them stretch the money much further than tangible supplies. For more information, contact The Hunger Coalition at 788-0121.

Souper Suppers

St. Charles Catholic Church in Hailey is also dedicated to feeding the community, twice a week every week. But a special segment of the Souper Supper group headed by "Head Souper" Marilyn Siegel organizes a special once-a-month dinner, including a special meal for Christmas.

"We're making a really nice dinner and Santa will be there," Siegel said, adding, "He has his own beard and his own belly!"

Siegel and Souper Supper Treasurer Dora Levin have been holding free community meals twice a week at the St. Charles Parish Hall in Hailey for 14 years. During that time, Levin said, they have filled 42,000 hungry stomachs and provided camaraderie for all guests who arrive, no questions asked.

"Everyone who comes is served," Levin said. "We have single men who come, we have older people who come, we have women with children, we have whole families. You really can't characterize our guests."

Siegel, along with a group of women and youth from area churches, took over the Souper Supper for each third Thursday of the month. This month, Dec. 15 was the Christmas meal, which featured a creative menu by Ketchum Kitchens employee Carol Van Bramer.

The group fed ham, cheesy potatoes, gourmet salads and brownie sundaes to roughly 50 people, all of which was made possible by funding from the churches and generous donors—but never the people attending the dinners.

"Our philosophy is that these people are our guests," Siegel said. "We always serve the food—there is no buffet line—and we always serve on china. We would always serve a meal that we would serve our families."

Siegel said that no matter how many guests come or how tough times get, somehow the meals always come together.

"We always have enough food, we always have enough people to serve," she said. "It's a little bit of a miracle."

To donate, checks can be sent to Souper Supper c/o Dora Levin, Box 4197, Ketchum, ID 83340.

Crisis Hotline

Sometimes, the stress and emotional baggage surrounding the holidays can lead to a need for emotional nourishment. Crisis Hotline Executive Director Sher Foster said her organization always receives more calls over the holidays, as some local residents find the holidays too much to handle.

"For those without family or supportive people in their lives, the holidays can be very difficult," Foster said.

Hotline calls have skyrocketed over the past six months, she said, going from three to four calls a week to two to three calls a day. The nature of the calls has changed as well, she said.

"During the winter, it's the more severe type of calls," she said, meaning calls from clients who are severely depressed or suicidal. "It's generally an immediate and overwhelming situation, where they don't know where to turn or don't have the resources."

Foster urged residents who notice friends or family who suddenly seem hopeless or withdrawn, are increasing substance abuse or avoiding familiar activities, to have that person call the Crisis Hotline—especially if the resident suspects the person may be suicidal.

"Suicide can almost always be prevented with early detection and proper intervention," she said.

The hotline is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and is staffed with trained volunteers who can refer callers to more than 400 local resources. The hotline is anonymous and confidential.

For more information, call 788-0735. The 24-hour hotline number is 726-3596 or 788-3596.

Katherine Wutz:

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