The continued rise in requests for holiday dinners and other assistance seen by The Open Door’s Julie LaFontaine this holiday season is hardly limited to Gloucester and Cape Ann across the North Shore.
In other nearby communities, sharing God’s bounty with others has also become an increasing way in which area schools, religious groups and businesses celebrate Thanksgiving.
South Church in Andover wants to get 300 meals for Neighbors in Need in honor of its 300th anniversary of its founding. This is the 21st year the church has conducted the drive led by Morgan and Beth Kiker. Last year, they prepared 241 meals which were distributed to 179 families.
Morgan Kiker said they have collected almost 200 meals so far. That’s a far cry from the six meals they donated from the back of the van when the couple first started. Now they rent a moving van to stack up all the boxes filled with all the fixings for a Thanksgiving meal.
“We certainly feel good. We have a lot that we take for granted and it’s good to help people who would otherwise go without,” Morgan Kiker said.
While it is more difficult with the economic downturn, Morgan Kiker said South Church has always been mission oriented both locally and globally. The Kikers get help from the church’s teenagers, other church members, neighbors and friends.
“Compared to some, we have plenty, so let’s share it,” said Morgan Kiker, a member of South Church for 39 years.
In Gloucester, LaFontaine noted that, as of Tuesday, The Open Door had already distributed 921 Thanksgiving meals– more than the roughly 900 the Emerson Avenue facility turned around during last year’s Thanksgiving time. And The Open Door remained open for distributing meals until 5 p.m. on Wednesday’s eve of the holiday.
“We’re definitely seeing an uptick in requests for holiday assistance,” LaFontaine told the Times Tuesday. “Let’s face it,” she said. “There’s more and more of a gap between what someone makes, and what it takes to live.”
Yet, LaFontaine also noted that her organization has also seen a continuing uptick in community generosity. And, as in other communities, a fair amount of that has come through schools and other local organizations.
Parent volunteers and staff at Veterans Memorial School, for example, organized a competition among grades there that spurred students to give — and deliver the items collected to The Open Door earlier this week.
And at Gloucester High School, students with Rotary International’s GHS Interact Club, the Gloucester High Student Council and National Honor Society chapters all spent time volunteering at The Open Door on Tuesday.
“I would say that this year, more than any other that I’ve been here, people have really stepped forward to make sure that their neighbors have a Thanksgiving meal,” said LaFontaine. “It’s been heartwarming, and very gratifying to see from our community.”
In Andover, students at St. Augustine School and the parish’s religious education program have hosted a turkey dinner drive for Lazarus House for the past 18 years. First- to eighth-grade students are given a list of items to bring including pasta, green beans, cranberry sauce, stuffing and gravy. Confirmation students were asked to bring peanut butter and juice boxes.
Ken Campbell, director of the St. Martha Food Pantry at Lazarus House, said the donation by the school and others is a blessing. For Thanksgiving they will be distributing between 800 to 900 holiday meals.
“I’m grateful to have the food, but discouraged that the economy has not reestablished itself so people can get jobs,” Campbell said. He said an average of 900 people come on Wednesdays to get supplemental groceries at the pantry.
Greenpark Mortgage, a division of Berkshire Bank, donated $680 through the Berkshire Bank Foundation enabling Lazarus House to purchase 20 food boxes, said mortgage branch manager Jim Kochakian.
“We know that people are hurting and we’ve wanted to give back to the community,” Kochakian said.
He came up with the idea for the food donation and hopes to make it an annual project.
“We were happy to help out, especially around Thanksgiving,” Kochakian said. “Even if there’s a good economy, there are still people hurting.”
Linda Zimmerman, executive director of Neighbors in Need, will distribute between 500 to 600 turkey meals and another 400 chicken meals.
“It’s always exciting, terrifying and amazing how it all works in the end. I sit back in awe of what’s happening because it is that miraculous,” Zimmerman said.
After the Thanksgiving meals are delivered, local pantries start stocking up again for the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“It’s very hard, once the turkeys are distributed, it’s a tough battle to do it again at Christmas,” Zimmerman said. “It’s like the best of times and the worst of times.”
Last Wednesday, Julia Polanco, executive director of Food for the World on Essex Street, gave out 1,500 Thanksgiving dinners including 1,060 turkeys. When the turkeys ran out, they distributed chicken.
“The need is really great, to have people stand in line for so long,” Polanco said.
Staff Writer Yadira Betances contributed to this story.