November 22, 2012

For social service agencies, need never takes a holiday

Social service organizations find a way to balance needs against capacity throughout the year

By Eric Russell
Staff Writer

Every year like clockwork, the red kettles show up outside busy pedestrian areas and department stores the week of Thanksgiving, as much a symbol of the holidays as Black Friday sales and Christmas lights.

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Danny Mitchell rings the bell at a Salvation Army donation kettle at Cabela’s in Scarborough on Wednesday. “This is the time of year when we tell our stories and remind people how life is out there for many of us,” said Maj. Steve Ditmer of the Salvation Army’s Portland Corps.

Portland Press Herald photo by Gregory Rec

Volunteers stationed at each Salvation Army kettle dutifully shake their bells to remind people that, during a time of thanks and family, there are always others who are worse off.

For the Salvation Army, which has sponsored the event for 121 years, the fundraising campaign is built on faith, not just faith in God but faith in people.

But even though people are more aware of the homeless and hungry during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, the need for help during the holidays is no greater than at any other time of year.

Maj. Steve Ditmer of the Salvation Army's Portland Corps said the challenge for the organization is harnessing the energy and compassion of the holidays and making it last through the rest of the year.

"This is the time of year when we tell our stories and remind people how life is out there for many of us," he said.

The Salvation Army is a Christian charity whose primary mission is to assist those in poverty through a variety of programs, including its ubiquitous thrift stores.

But the organization is not alone in its plight. Other social service agencies say the holiday season tends to draw out the selfless side of people, a job that's harder to do when Christmas isn't looming.

Mark Swann, director of the Preble Street Resource Center, a one-stop shop for homeless services in Portland, said the soup kitchen at Preble Street and its homeless shelters are actually busier in the summer. But November and December are the giving time of year, he said, and the center uses the increased attention to remind people of the ever-growing need.

Swann said the food program has seen a 29 percent increase this year over last. That's on top of a 20 percent increase from 2010 to 2011. The soup kitchen has served 560,000 meals so far this year, more than 1,500 meals every day.

Swann said he still doesn't know how his staff does it some days.

"We'll be preparing breakfast at 7:30 and we'll realize that we don't have enough food for anyone and then, amazingly, someone will show up with dozens of eggs and thirty pounds of bacon," he said.

At the soup kitchen during lunchtime on Wednesday, a line of people snaked around tables filled with plates and people. Outside, a giant yellow school bus was packed to the ceiling, not with students but with food, boxes and boxes of donated food from a drive organized by a local radio station. Young volunteers, including members of the University of Southern Maine's wrestling team, passed the boxes assembly-line style from the bus into the kitchen.

Swann said as funding for programs continue to be slashed, support from the community is even more important.

"The idea that some people think we're too generous to the homeless, that's just ridiculous," he said, gesturing toward the soup kitchen. "People don't want to live like that."

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, who has worked as an affordable housing developer, said he believes the city has a collective responsibility to help its less-fortunate residents. That's becoming harder and harder amid crippling government cuts to social programs. Brennan said the growing need is evident in the spike in people applying for general assistance. During the 2011-12 fiscal year, the city's general assistance budget was $6.5 million. For this fiscal year, it's $7.9 million.

The city is doing more, Brennan said, but the need for other agencies to fill in the gaps is still acute.

Ditmer said the Salvation Army's kettle campaign is designed to make it easy for people to give. There's no need to write a check or call during a pledge drive. People can simply empty the change from their pockets, and the amount adds up.

The Salvation Army's fundraising goal this is year is $160,000. Last year, volunteers aimed for $150,000 and collected $164,000. Ditmer said it's the biggest fundraiser of the year and the organization stretches those dollars as far as it can to provide food, clothing and housing assistance. The Salvation Army has also prepared Thanksgiving food baskets for hundreds of family with turkey, potatoes and stuffing. In a few weeks, more than 3,000 children will receive Christmas presents purchased with donated funds.

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