The holidays are a time for giving. For those who are in need, a warm holiday meal can mean the world, but who provides them locally?
Low–income families can get help during the holidays, both at Christmas and Thanksgiving. There are multiple agencies in the north country that donate free toys and warm clothing to holiday food boxes, warm meals and more. A number of counties, including Jefferson and Lewis, offer meal donations along with gift donations making sure that area children have presents to open. These agencies also make sure that families are provided with clothing for the colder months.
Two places that work to provide holiday assistance are the Watertown Salvation Army and the Lowville Food Pantry.
At the Lowville Food Pantry, senior citizens and low–income families are matched with donors for free Christmas gifts and food boxes. On Oct. 14, a new addition to the pantry was unveiled and with it, a space for the Christmas Sharing Program in the upstairs portion of the building. Nancy J. Hanno is the co-chair of the Christmas Sharing Program with her husband, Michael. They also have two co-chairs, Tom and Tina Stanford, that are in charge of food, which Mrs. Hanno said is an astronomical job because the program gives enough food for two weeks.
“I have a great board, unbelievable, and they work just as hard as I do,” Mrs. Hanno said.
Usually, in mid-October, the families will come to the pantry and apply for the program. They must apply in person with valid photo identification and as they fill out the application, they list their children along with ages and clothing sizes because every child gets an outfit as part of the program. Along with this information, the families are asked to include wish lists for toys and things their children may want for Christmas.
According to Mrs. Hanno, the pantry used to give full Thanksgiving dinners with a turkey and everything, but now they give families a gift card for the turkey and provide everything else they’d need for their dinner. With many children of low-income families receiving breakfast and lunch through their schools when in session, the pantry helps to provide their food during breaks, sending a large additional box of food to make sure those kids are covered. As with many things in local communities, help comes from all over.
“Kraft Heinz, for years, have donated pallets of food, and that helps us a lot,” Mrs. Hanno said. “We also purchase from the Food Bank and churches help us. If we send them a request for 100 cans of something, they will do that.”
Under the umbrella of the Christmas Sharing Program is Santa for Seniors, which provided roughly 225 boxes of food to elderly residents of Lewis County. The Christmas Sharing Program was started decades ago by James Freeman, who passed away last October. He was the one that ran it for years and then asked Mr. and Mrs. Hanno to take over because he was having health issues. Last year, being their first year without him, Mrs. Hanno recalls it being very emotional. The program started with not even 30 families and over the years it’s built to include all school aged children in Lewis County that are income qualified.
The program can serve up to 600 children in a year. Mrs. Hanno estimates that last year saw a total of around 545 children. Usually servicing a couple hundred families, the Christmas Sharing Program makes around 200 boxes of food to give out each year, with Santa for Seniors providing 250 bags of food.
The program is completely reliant on donations.
“We have no grants, we go after nothing,” Mrs. Hanno said. “We are completely funded by the people in this community, in Lewis County.”
When “Giving Day” comes around in December, the program uses the local Elks lodge a few days before they give out the donations, to pack everything and prepare for the big day. This year, the give out day will be Dec. 14, with packing beginning on Dec. 12. A sign of how giving the local community is, the program never needs to seek out volunteers. In fact, it is always the other way around.
“It means everything; we could not do it without these people,” Mrs. Hanno said. “ It takes your breath away, what people will do.”
The Salvation Army has been providing and coordinating holiday meal services for the last eight years, according to Lena M. Parker, a social worker with the Salvation Army in Watertown.
“Still this year, a lot of people aren’t able to go and see their families and it makes it hard on them. So, to make them feel part of something is huge,” Mrs. Parker said. “At least they have their meal in front of them and we have our drivers that will take their meal and at least tell them Happy Thanksgiving.”
During a normal year, the Salvation Army cooks turkeys on-site, eight turkeys a day, about a week before Thanksgiving. Then Renzi Foodservice provides the organization with most of what else is needed for the Thanksgiving meal. Volunteers will come in the day before Thanksgiving to carve the turkeys and prepare what they can ahead of the big day.
Thanksgiving Day, when the Salvation Army used to have guests eat in, they would start serving at about 11 a.m. and people could come in, sit down and be served completely by volunteers-- they don’t do anything for themselves that day. If they want a drink, food, or anything else, they just raise their hand and their waiter gets it for them.
Last year, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, things needed to be switched up a bit. Instead of dining in, many people called in their orders, which went out for delivery. Those that would normally come in and eat lined up outside the building and would tell the volunteers how many meals they needed, which would then be packaged up and brought out to them. Due to the stress that the pandemic put onto everyone, guests last year were given extra bread and snacks and things of that nature to brighten their holiday.
“We also had people pulling up and asking for meals,” Mrs. Parker said. “So, we are going to do it that way again this year. The only difference is we will have walkers come to the front door, and anybody who is just going to pull up to get meals, and our delivery drivers, will be going to the back door.”
Last year, the Salvation Army gave out 852 meals in total, and Mrs. Parker was expecting around the same this year.
If people know they’ll need a delivery, Mrs. Parker said, they should try and call ahead of time so volunteers can fill out a sheet and have their meals ready and prepared to go out. They will take calls throughout Thanksgiving Day up until about two in the afternoon, though the organization typically serves from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The Salvation Army is totally donation reliant when it comes to Thanksgiving. Usually around Thanksgiving, Mrs. Parker said the community is awesome, bringing her turkeys and pies and all kinds of different things that she can incorporate into the Thanksgiving meals.
It can also always use volunteers, though with COVID, the number of volunteers allowed in at any given time needs to be monitored and limited to maintain safety measures. To become a volunteer, those interested can call the office at (315) 782-4470.
“The program is definitely needed, there’s so many people out there that feel alone, and for Salvation Army, our big incentive is food-- that’s what we base everything on is making sure our community is fed,” Mrs. Parker said. “Bringing a community together, doing something that makes their life better or more enjoyable or bringing the sense of being wanted is huge in our eyes. We want everybody to feel like a family.”
Other north country locations that provide holiday assistance include the Community Action Planning Council of Jefferson County, the Salvation Army of Ogdensburg and St. Lawrence County, the Potsdam Holiday Fund, the Watertown Urban Mission, Toys for Tots, and the St. Lawrence County Community Development Program, to name a few.