Central peninsula agencies count on holiday spirit for help

Posted: Wednesday, January 07, 2004

It's never anything but tough to be hungry or lonely, but the holiday season has a way of compounding the hard times.

That's why so many people contribute to, volunteer with or manage agencies such as the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, United Way, The Salvation Army and other nonprofit service organizations whose efforts brighten the lives of peninsula residents. This past Thanksgiving-to-Christmas season was no different.

"Public participation has just been great," said Linda Swarner, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, now in its 16th year of operations. The food bank has 11 mostly part-time employees and dozens of volunteers.

During 2003, the food bank's soup kitchen operation served an average of 1,700 meals per month, up 300 per month from 2002, Swarner said.

As usual, the food bank offered a Christmas dinner at its Kalifornsky Beach Road center, serving 65 meals. While some who attended were truly in need of a good meal, everyone brought an appetite for food and companionship.

"Sometimes it is just people who are alone on Christmas Day and want to be with others," Swarner said. "Others were those who usually come to the Monday-through-Friday soup kitchen."

The food bank relies heavily upon donations from individuals and groups, and this past year, donations were on a par with previous years, Swarner said.

"We are grateful for every donation, whether monetary or nonmonetary," she said, adding, however, that she had noted a decrease in the level of donations from peninsula senior citizens who once used their excess income for charitable giving.

"In our recent mail appeal, we have received some comments about the loss of the Longevity Bonus checks," Swarner said.

Kenai Peninsula Salvation Army Envoy Craig Fanning said the Army's annual Thanksgiving dinner served about 200 meals, including home deliveries and take-out. Of those, some 78 came to eat at The Salvation Army Church in Kenai.

Fanning said Christmas baskets were up, but he had no final count. About 450 families were served, he said.

"Donations are about the same as last year. This is a very generous community," he said. "We did extremely well for the economy. We covered our expenses."

The seemingly omnipresent red kettles attended by bell-ringing volunteers brought in about $25,000 this year, Fanning said. Coupled with the mail-out appeals, they covered about 20 percent of the annual budget revenue stream. Another 50 to 60 percent comes from successful The Salvation Army Thrift Store operations, he said.

"The thrift stores are up. Unfortunately, I attribute that to Kmart being gone," Fanning noted, adding that while more shoppers came through thrift store doors, the loss of Big Kmart impacted donations. Big Kmart had represented the largest source of donations for kettles and angel trees.

Down in Homer, The Salvation Army Capt. Mark Thielenhaus said kettle donations in the Homer area were down about $2,000 from last year. Weather was a factor, but he attributed the decrease largely to there being roughly 40 fewer volunteer hours compared to 2002.

"If the kettles aren't manned, people can't give," he said. "At the same time, our thrift store is doing very well. People are being very generous."

The Homer Salvation Army gets help from local corporations. For instance, General Communications Inc. (GCI) ran a food and toy drive, and the U.S. Coast Guard conducted a wood-cutting project, turning the proceeds from the sale of firewood over to The Salvation Army.

In Homer, the organization distributed Thanksgiving baskets to 82 households, compared to 71 the previous year. Christmas food boxes jumped from 68 in 2002 to 84 in 2003. Christmas gifts were distributed to 43 children in 2003, compared to 50 in 2002.

United Way also chalked up a successful winter holiday season, said Amy Manuel, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula United Way.

"Just before Christmas we were at 59 percent of our goal," she said.

The United Way's fiscal year runs April 16 to April 15 each year, but their heaviest fund-raising efforts are in the early fall. The current fiscal year's goal of $550,000 is $100,000 lower than in 2002. Fanning said the local board was trying to be conservative, believing $550,000 might be difficult to reach considering the state of the economy.

"I'm optimistic, though," Manuel said.

She also noted that United Way benefited from corporate donations this fiscal year, including $40,000 from Agrium, more than $38,500 from Tesoro and sizable donations from companies such as Peak Oil Field Services and BP.

Among the agencies receiving United Way grants are the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank and The Salvation Army, Manuel said.

Kenai Peninsula Borough and Kenai Peninsula Borough School District employees leant their support to United Way. According to Ed Oberts, assistant to borough Mayor Dale Bagley, who has been acting as the United Way's unofficial point person at the borough, 29 borough employees donated to United Way through the office campaign in 2002. In 2003, that number jumped to 51. The effort collected $10,492, Oberts said. School district workers added an additional $4,500.

For every $10 pledged, employees got their name put in a pot, making them eligible for prizes donated by area businesses.

Meanwhile, the Kenai Borough Employees Association, the union representing some of borough employees, sponsored a Christmas food basket program.

The agencies listed above don't represent an exhaustive list of charitable efforts during 2003 or over the recent holiday season, but they are representative of the kind of generosity exhibited by peninsula residents, agency officials said.

Perhaps Swarner put it best when she described why she loves her own job.

"We never know when some tragedy could happen to us and we might be hungry," she said. "No one deserves to be hungry."

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