DENISE CROSBY: Volunteers needed more than ever at Aurora charities
By Denise Crosby firstname.lastname@example.org January 21, 2014 12:40PM
Photo 7: Breanna Jackson, 16, (left), who attends Oswego East High, and Madeline Bozik, 14, who attends West Aurora High School, volunteer breaking down cardboard boxes at the Marie Wilkinson Food Pantry as part of Aurora's Day of Service. Kalyn Belsha~Su
To help out
Northern Illinois Food Bank
Aurora Area Interfaith
Marie Wilkinson Food Pantry
Updated: February 23, 2014 6:27AM
We’re only a couple weeks into 2014, but the holidays are already a fading memory ... leaving us with the not so merry task of reducing credit card debt and egg nog pounds.
And our post Yuletide morose isn’t made easier by the polar vortex that dropped by after the New Year like unwelcome house guests who also brought their three dogs.
While we all try to deal with end-of-year excess, local not for profits are struggling with a different kind of “holiday hangover.” As usual, volunteers turned out in droves from Thanksgiving through December, eager to spread peace on earth and goodwill toward men, especially those less fortunate.
But after the mistletoe is packed up and we’ve donated our time and turkeys to the needy, let’s face it: All we really want to do is hunker down until Opening Day at the ballpark.
“Unfortunately,” said Diane Renner, director for the Marie Wilkinson Food Pantry, “poor people still get hungry after the holidays.”
A shortage of volunteers this time of year is not unique to the Fox Valley. A recent report in the San Francisco Business Times, for example, noted a 10 percent decrease from Bay Area pantries.
“It’s always a struggle,” said Marilyn Weisner, executive director of the Aurora Area Interfaith Food Pantry, adding that the issue is even more critical now that the new and larger facility on Jericho Road is up and running.
And unlike past years when the number of people using the pantry also takes a post-holiday dip, there’s no such reprieve anymore. In one recent four-hour period alone, Weisner said, more than 250 clients came through the doors.
“They say the recession is over, but the need is greater than ever,” agreed Renner, who has seen the smaller Marie Wilkinson Pantry go from serving 60 to 80 families a week a few years ago to 250 per week now.
“We had to turn volunteers away at the holidays, and we try to get them back in January,” she added. “Once we get them through the door, they often stay because they really like what it’s all about. Unfortunately, some just want to volunteer only at Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
Donna Lake, director of communications for the Northern Illinois Food Bank, says the dropoff from family, corporate and service group volunteers after the holidays makes it much more difficult to serve the 800 different feeding programs in a 13-county area.
“We really do need volunteers more than ever,” she said.
As does Michael Cobb, the new director at Hesed House, Aurora’s homeless shelter.
“Because we receive so many volunteer inquiries leading up to and during the holidays, we develop a call list to reach out to folks after the first of the year as openings develop,” he said. “Most holiday-related callers want to serve food on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. And our church groups and others are booked from year to year. So in January, we begin formatting openings and opportunities for the first quarter of the year.”
Old Man Winter doesn’t help the cause. People struggle even more to survive as they must take on additional costs such as higher utility bills and car and furnace repairs. At the same time, volunteer numbers dip because many of those giving their time are older and find it difficult to battle snow, ice and freezing temperatures to serve at pantries or shelters.
Plus “people are just sick of giving by the time January rolls around,” noted Renner. “When people are so depleted, it makes it especially difficult for us to go knocking on doors asking for more.”
Whether you can volunteer on a schedule or give an occasional hour or so, your help is welcome at pantries to unload, sort and distribute food, even to direct traffic over on Jericho Road. For the Food Bank, Lake said there’s even a need for specialized services such as marketing or finance.
At Hesed House, volunteers are needed for overnight shifts in the PADS shelter and Transitional Living Community. There is also a need for volunteers on “open nights,” said Cobb, where there’s no church or organization to prepare and serve food.
Bottom line: These not for profits are currently spreading donations and volunteers as thin as the peanut butter that becomes a hot commodity this time of year.
Renner recalled with appreciation a West Aurora High School dean who showed up Monday on Martin Luther King Day and simply asked what she could do to help. When she was told there was a shortage of spaghetti sauce and canned fruit, she left and returned a short time later with her trunk filled with these grocery items.
“A lot of people just think of us once,” said Renner. “But remember, the need is there year round.”