The late singer Harry Chapin used to ask a “what if” question. What would happen if we all came together after the generosity shown to our neighbors through the holiday season and discussed the fact that these people are hungry all year. They aren’t lacking food and basic necessities only on Thanksgiving day and during Christmas. Click the link below to hear Harry’s words.
What would happen? New Hope Ministries would happen. The Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, World Central Kitchen, No Kid Hungry, and Share our Strength would happen. Community Cares, Shalom House, Safe Harbor, and Bethesday Mission would happen. The Salvation Army would happen. The churches that have clothing for the community and food kitchens would happen. But if EVERYONE knew and understood what their neighbors were going through and the real need that was there and if they CARED, more would happen.
Too often people in our county or region think that there is no need, no hunger, no poverty around here. They tell me that if people are hungry, it’s because they are lazy and don’t want to work. That’s a convenient idea of what is going on – it blames without knowing the facts and it blames the victims who are often blameless. Often I have had people making these claims not knowing that their next door neighbor needed to use a food pantry or that some of their relatives are in danger of losing their homes. In one case I had someone very, very nastily claim that the local fire company didn’t need to be giving out free turkeys for Thanksgiving because people need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. He was so hate-filled and beligerent in his arguement all the while living off of a government program! It is easy to blame but it is also heartless and wrong.
Before you tell me about the one you heard about who abuses the “system,” let me say that I’m sure there are people who don’t work because they are lazy, because they can’t be bothered to show up daily to a job. However, as someone who has been interested in food insecurity for a long time and has done her homework (as well as having common sense), I know that the issue is not that simple. Having worked with New Hope Ministries for several years now, I know the extent of the problem and the personal stories of people who have found themselves wondering where their next meal, the payment for their next utility bill, or the rent is coming from.
Sometimes people are in need for a season. They may have been gainfully employed for a long time but have suddenly found themselves without a job due to layoffs or business closures. Sometimes it is because of medical problems like a sudden illness or a car accident that has left them unable to work (and, no, their employers don’t pay them through these times). Some have catastrophic illness or injuries that put them into bankruptcy.
Others are people in need for a season because life took a different kind of hard turn. A disproportionate number of women with children have had a man suddenly walk out taking his income with him. These women will show up at the door of someplace like New Hope Ministries broken-hearted, scared, and desperate to make sure they can keep a roof over the heads of their kids and feed them.
These people who need help for a season of their lives are struggling financially due to no fault of their own, due to circumstances they cannot control. They will get on their feet again, but they need the help until they are able to find the new job or get well and find their footing.
Sometimes people need help for a longer time. They may be people with disabilities both physical and mental. No one can live on disability coverage from Social Security without help from loved ones or an organization that serves as a safety net. Some are retirees who have worked all their lives and struggled just to make ends meet. If they are trying to live on Social Security alone, they will need help with food or bills. I’ve met elderly people in danger of being put out onto the streets at this point in their lives when they had always paid their bills but never had enough income to start a retirement account, who never had a retirement plan. They may well have family, but often the family is also struggling.
That brings me to the next group needing assistance. Sometimes people fall into the largest category of the community needing our help – the working poor. These are people who are working. They work hard and have a strong work ethic. They may lack skills, training, or education along with the financial wherewithal to get them. They may even be working more than one job, because employers don’t hire full time people. By hiring part-time staff only, an employer avoids the expense incurred by the necessity of providing insurance. While that is often a good business decision and one that an employer must make, it also means that many of these people either spend a great portion of their income on medical insurance or (and this is much more likely to be the reality) don’t have any medical insurance. They barely survive from paycheck to paycheck on a good week. Often they must rely on food pantry help or go hungry. If they get sick, they cannot afford a doctor or a missed shift at work. If one of the children is sick, they cannot see a doctor until they get so much worse that they end up using the emergency room where they cannot be turned away. But they will incur the costs.
Whatever the circumstances that have led people to the door of an organization for help, I have seen at New Hope that there are several things so, so many of them have in common. The first is that they don’t want to be asking for help. A lot of the people coming in have never had to seek assistance before and they come in embarrassed. The first thing volunteers do is treat these people with respect and a warmhearted welcome. They will be assured that this isn’t something that should be a source of shame. Respect, welcome, and listening let them know that they are safe and will be cared for.
New Hope Ministries has been a source of food for those facing food insecurity since they opened the doors. It is something that we have, thanks to generosity from the community, been able to do for anyone who walks in hungry or in need.
New Hope Ministries will also help people to get training for a career and find a job. They have job fairs, career counselors, and classes to help people get on their feet. Some of the best times we experience involve when a guest comes in celebrating the successful completion of career training, when they come in ecstatic over finding a new job, and when they send us notes about how appreciative they are to have gotten help and now be able to take care of themselves.
Unfortunately, all of the local organizations have seen a huge increase in need during recent years. The government shut down a few years back sent people seeking help who had never before needed it and who would not need it long term. The pandemic made life difficult for everyone including these organizations trying so hard to help. As the needs rose at an extremely rapid rate, these groups often had fewer volunteers and fewer donations for obvious reasons. And now as our society continues to deal with the aftermath of business closures, accrued debt, and sudden need, the demand continues to grow.
However, the biggest increase in the need for help isn’t just food or job searches. As important as those things are, more and more people have been needing help in finding a place to live or assistance in paying rent. Cumberland County, Pennsylvania has extremely limited help available for people who have found themselves homeless or in need of low cost housing. We have plenty of the working poor, but housing them is difficult. Often helping a family who is in danger of losing their home because of the loss of a job, a sudden illness, or an abrupt disappearance of a partner just means helping them get caught up so that they can move on from there. But this has been difficult to do for organizations who have little or no funding coming in. We are always aware of the others trying to help in the area and that the effort to fill this need is widespread through agencies.
WHAT CAN YOU DO? Obviously, at this time of the year, giving to drives for food or for Christmas gifts is a generous way you can lend a hand. Get your children involved. Let them select a gift to donate to a child their age and food items from the grocery store to donate.
But please remember that the need is there and opportunities abound throughout the year. You can help any day and every day in a variety of ways:
- Donate cash or gift cards.
- Set up a regular donation as part of your monthly expenses. It doesn’t have to be a huge amount to make a difference.
- Find out if your employer has a matching donation plan and take advantage of that.
- See if your church, synagogue, or mosque is involved with an organization or agency trying to give assistance. If they are, help with their efforts. If they are not, perhaps you could start a program.
- Volunteer your time. As with donations, there are often offers of extra help around the holidays. That extra help in a season of extra need and special programs is welcome and appreciated! But they need volunteers all year. At the center where I volunteer, there are four paid employees running all of the programs. But on any given day, you will find dozens of people helping as warehouse and the pantry stockers, pantry assistants, case workers offering guidance and opportunities for training, and receptionists setting up appointments and making sure guests get to the right people to be helped. And more volunteers are always needed!*
- Any chance you get to highlight the need and any organization working to alleviate that need, get on a soapbox and sound the news. Make it so that people cannot feign ignorance about the dire need not just in the far corners of the world…not just where people have been ravaged by flood, famine, and war…not just in some other part our country or state…but right here in our own communities, on our own streets, and in our own families.
- I would also remind everyone that, while it has come to sound trite and ineffective, they really do need your thoughts and prayers in addition to your physical and financial help.
As Harry used to say all the time, “When in doubt, do something.”
*I have used New Hope Ministries as my example through this post, but please be aware that there are lots of others also doing great work. Not all of you live close enough to come and join me there. If you are in south Florida, the Harry Chapin Food Bank of South Florida is an excellent organization. In New York, the Long Island Cares group is doing great work. I’m sure that most communities have someone doing good work, but I’m familiar with them. If you are looking for a world wide group doing excellent work feeding people facing a disaster, you can’t do better than supporting José Andres’ World Central Kitchen. So find an organization working in your area that is doing great work and lend a hand.