The words of Gene Birk, longtime director of the Brighter Christmas holiday charity drive and still a volunteer, have been said before.
But Birk, who has seen 31 Brighter Christmas seasons come and go and is working his 32nd, insists it’s not hyperbole — it’s the truth. And he’s not the only one.
“There’s a terrible need now,” said Myra Casey, director of the Tracy Salvation Army. “It’s worse this year.”
Tim Grover, a former Eagle Scout in his third year as leader of the local Scouting for Food Drive, agrees.
“There’s a big need. There was a huge need last year and an even bigger need this year for donations,” he said. “This is the third year I’ve been coordinating this, and the need’s been greater each year.”
Directors at local charities throughout 2011 have remarked that demand for food, money and other resources has increased unabated. Most blame falling house prices and foreclosures that have left many without homes and an economy that has shed jobs without offering new opportunities.
The jobless rate in Tracy continues to be better than for its San Joaquin County neighbors — unemployment for September was at 9.6 percent in Tracy, 15.4 percent countywide, 18.5 percent in Stockton, 13.4 percent in Manteca and 11.7 percent in Lodi. Yet unemployment had been below 7 percent countywide as recently as September 2007.
Many have also lost their homes in the past few years, a trend that is far from reversing. In October alone, one of every 81 Tracy home units — 318 in all — received a foreclosure notice, according to Realty Trac, which keeps tabs on foreclosures across the country.
Darlene Quinn, who oversees the Tracy Interfaith Ministries food pantry, said the need is apparent in just how quickly the money for utility assistance flies out the doors at Grant Line Road and Parker Avenue.
“We budgeted a certain amount a month, and that used to take us through mid-month,” Quinn said. “Anymore, we go through that on day one.”
And it’s not just the chronically homeless — the same single men and women living on the streets — who are seeking help. Experts in the local continuum of care say more and more formerly middle-class families are looking for help from outfits like Brighter Christmas and Tracy Interfaith. Or even from a homeless shelter.
Armenia Pereira, director at the McHenry House Family Shelter, said she’s seen an increase in families that need a place to stay. Many parents have lost one or two jobs and have simply run out of resources to keep a roof over their heads. They’re people who have “done the right thing,” Pereira said, yet still find themselves in dire straits.
“(It’s) someone who’s never been in a shelter before. It could be anyone.”
Gail Gabbert, first-year chairwoman for an annual holiday home tour to benefit McHenry House, said it’s been a tight year for the shelter, because of scarce grant and government money, and the pressure is on for fundraisers to make up the difference.
“This year, there’s really a need,” said Gabbert, a Tracy native. “There’s been so much funding cut.”
Quinn and others predict the looming holiday season will continue to strain charitable groups, as many gear up to provide special meals and giveaways.
“The economy’s not gotten any better, and we keep seeing more people who are coming here for their regular food, so every indication is that they’ll seek holiday help,” Quinn said.
Unfortunately, as many have pointed out, donations for many charities have slowed just as the need becomes most acute.
Doing more with less
Steve Abercrombie, a city councilman since December 2006, took over as the director of Brighter Christmas in 2010. The charity provided a record 895 families with food and toys for Christmas that year, and Abercrombie predicts more of the same in 2011.
“I would think we’re looking at about the same, if not more,” he said.
That, he and Birk said, could be a problem.
“Our donations were really down last year,” Abercrombie said.
It’s not just the large number of families they expect to see, Birk added. The increasing cost of food is also putting pressure on countless local charities.
“We’re paying $6 a (turkey) more than we paid for them last year,” he said, meaning an estimated price bump of $5,000. Brighter Christmas’ bottom line is about $40,000 a year.
“It’s huge,” Abercrombie said.
The American Farm Bureau calculated that the cost of an average Thanksgiving dinner for 10 people in 2011 is up by about 13 percent, from $43.47 to $49.20. According to AFB senior economist John Anderson, increases in meat and dairy prices were the primary drivers.
The spike makes food collection efforts, such as the Boy Scouts’ drive this Saturday, even more important to keep cupboards from going bare.
“This year, we’re hoping to surpass 10,000 pounds of food,” said Grover, who will oversee about 150 Scouts who will go door to door Saturday in search of donations and nonperishable food that will be given directly to Tracy Interfaith. The drive collected about 9,000 pounds a year ago.
Quinn also offered a reminder that food and other items can be taken directly at the charity.
“(We need) food, food and more food,” Quinn said. “We also will need toys, new toys for Christmas.”
But Scouting for Food is only one of several efforts in the coming weeks to raise money for charities that have been hard-pressed to meet demand for services, both during the holidays and throughout the year.
Chances to chip in
Starting Thursday evening and continuing through this weekend, the Festival of Trees hopes to raise as much as $100,000 for the Sutter Tracy Hospital Foundation. The foundation hands out $250,000 worth of grants each year to Tracy groups and the local nonprofit hospital, said festival chairwoman Cindy Sanders, who was busy this week with more than 100 volunteers, transforming the Portuguese Hall on Ninth Street into a Middle Eastern-themed “magical Christmas” wonderland.
“It really raises awareness in the community of who we are and what we do,” Sanders said.
Included in the programs funded by the festival-sourced grants is a CPR education class that has been directly credited for local students saving the lives of classmates, Sanders said.
“You can’t put a price tag on that,” she said, encouraging people to attend one of the several festival events between tonight and Sunday morning.
Brighter Christmas also kicked off its fundraising for this fall and winter with an Elks Lodge dinner Thursday. Birk said the expected turnout for the after-press-time meal was the strongest he’d ever seen, and he hoped the spirit will carry over to the jail-and-bail fundraiser scheduled for Dec. 7, a Wednesday.
“That is extremely important,” Birk said. “That’s our biggest fundraiser.”
Abercrombie also stressed that the charity welcomes anyone who can contribute time to sign people up, visit homes to verify need, and box and distribute food and gifts.
Carrie Burnell, who’s performed house visits for several years, said that though there are people out there who try to game the system, volunteering can be a truly rewarding experience.
“Ninety-nine percent, they need it. Especially right now,” Burnell said. “We’re getting a lot more people needing the assistance of Brighter Christmas than usual.
“You go into someone’s home and you see they have all these little kids running around, or a baby in a carrier — it’s needed. And I think we’re lucky to be in a community that does this.”
Salvation Army bell-ringers will also be out beginning the Friday after Thanksgiving, according to Casey.
She needs volunteers to work two-hour shifts in front of well-visited retail locations around town every day between then and Dec. 24, except Sundays.
“I notice that there’s a bigger need than ever,” Casey said. “I have people in here crying that they can’t pay their bills.”
But she cautioned local residents to be wary about giving away their money.
Since at least 2010, several individuals purporting to represent organizations that “help the homeless” have set up shop around the 99 Cents Only store, Walmart and other local retailers. However, no one in the continuum of care contacted by the Press could verify the legitimacy of these outfits, with one mental health outreach worker last year calling them “fly-by-night.”
“I know most of the (local) homeless — they’ve never been approached by these people,” Casey said.
Instead, Casey cautioned that those in the giving spirit should ask about where their donations are going and, when in doubt, give only to organizations they know to be reputable.
Those in search of a trustworthy way to help have plenty of other options — the drives in this report aren’t the only efforts in the south county looking to make the holiday season brighter for the less fortunate. For more, see the weekly Datebook listing in the Press and at TracyPress.com, which will continue to be updated, as well as the accompanying graphic to this story.
As Burnell said, there are plenty of ways to give. She recalled one man whose family was helped by Brighter Christmas in 2010 deciding to pay it forward this year with the only thing he had to share — service.
“Those who can’t donate money, donate time,” Burnell asked.
Several charity drives and fundraisers are around the corner or under way in Tracy. Here are a few of them.
Festival of Trees
Benefits: Programs funded by Sutter Tracy Hospital Foundation, including Tracy Interfaith Ministries, Healthy Connections, McHenry House Family Shelter, CPR training for kids and student health and fitness education
Events: All at the Portuguese Hall, 430 W. Ninth St. • Silver Bell Social, 10 a.m. today, Nov. 18, $15 each, features Santa, tea and treats • Ladies Night Out, 6 p.m. today, Nov. 18, $35 each, features appetizers, wine and shopping • Teddy Bear Tea, 10 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 19, $15 per child and $20 per adult, tea, goodies, Santa’s Secret Shop and a live mini-performance of “The Nutcracker” • Elegant Soiree, 6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 19, $100 each, black-tie-optional gourmet dinner, auctions and dancing • Teddy Bear Tea, 10 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 20, $15 per child and $20 per adult, tea, goodies, Santa’s Secret Shop and a live mini-performance of “The Nutcracker.”
Brighter Christmas and Angel Tree
Benefits: Needy families and children in Tracy
Events: Angel Tree begins, Nov. 25 through Dec. 22, West Valley Mall, pick a gift tag and fulfill the wish • Applications taken, 8:45 a.m. to 2 p.m. Nov. 28 and 29, Tracy Community Center, volunteers are needed to meet at 8:30 a.m. • Screening, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Dec. 3, Tracy Community Center, volunteers are needed to determine the need of applicants • Jail-and-bail fundraiser, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 7, Central Avenue and 10th Street, suggest someone to arrest (833-3309) so they can raise charity bail money • Sort and box food, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Dec. 17 and 18, 1225 MacArthur Drive, volunteers are needed • Box toys, noon to 5 p.m. Dec. 20, Williams Middle School, volunteers are needed • Distribution, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dec. 22, Williams Middle School, volunteers are needed.
McHenry House Home Tour
Benefits: McHenry House Family Shelter
Events: Meet at 11 a.m. Dec. 4, at Windmill Ridge Winery, 8350 W. Linne Road, $30 presale, $35 at the door, $5 discount for seniors 60 and older, tickets available at McHenry House, 739 A St., or Owl Box, 8010 W. 11th St. Gather for hors d’oeuvres at the winery before departing on a tour of five Tracy homes decked out for the holidays.
Scouting for Food
Benefits: Tracy Interfaith Ministries
Events: Saturday, Nov. 19, food drive. Scouts walk door to door seeking donations and food. Gifts can also be dropped off directly to Tracy Interfaith Ministries at Grant Line Road and Parker Avenue.
Salvation Army bell-ringing
Benefits: Salvation Army
Events: Bell ringing during retail hours between Nov. 25 and Dec. 24, except Sundays. Volunteers work two-hour shifts.
CHiPs for Kids Charity
Benefits: Needy children
Events: The California Highway Patrol accepts new, unwrapped toys for boys and girls. Toy donation lasts 8 a.m. through 5 p.m. weekdays through Dec. 20, CHP office at 385 W. Grant Line Road or New Jerusalem School at 31400 South Koster Road.
Benefits: Needy families in Tracy and Mountain House
Events: Volunteers are needed for assembling and packing boxes of food, wrapping gifts and making deliveries to the families. Boxes assembled, 8 a.m. Dec. 3, at the warehouse at 1905 N. MacArthur Drive • Boxes filled, Dec. 10, at the warehouse • Gifts wrapped, Dec. 10, 1032 Serpentine Lane, Ste. 103, in Pleasanton.
• Boxes and gifts delivered, Dec. 17, from both Tracy and Pleasanton warehouses.
Info: Cheryl Sanders, 820-3700.
U.S. Marines Toys for Tots
Benefits: Brighter Christmas, needy children
Events: Salon Vision charity drive, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Dec. 3, 114 E. 11th St. Take new unwrapped toys and monetary donations for the Toys for Tots drive. The salon will offer a 20 percent discount for any purchase in exchange for a donation, and cocoa and cookies will be donated by downtown vendors.