EAGLE COUNTY — A lot of numbers tell us the Vail Valley economy is improving. But the numbers recorded by the local chapter of the Salvation Army tell a different story.
The local charity, which provides assistance ranging from help for stranded motorists to rent and medical assistance to food aid for local residents, has seen its caseload balloon during the past five years. In 2008, the Vail Valley Salvation Army handled fewer than 1,000 cases of all kinds. This year, that number is expected to exceed 6,000 cases.
Right now, the Salvation Army food pantry in Avon is running low on virtually every kind of food.
Tsu Wolin-Brown, one of the local Salvation Army’s two paid employees, said a couple this week dropped off a van-load of food for the pantry. But, she added, the Salvation Army could use volunteers to pick up food from local grocery stores that’s often available, but needs to be transported from the store to the pantry.
Dan Smith, chairman of the local Salvation Army’s board of directors, said this is one of the low-pantry times for the charity. So is the time right after the Christmas holidays.
But the need doesn’t go away. Wolin-Brown said as many as 20 people per day come to the Avon office seeking food aid. A nearly-empty pantry means scant help for those in need.
While the shelves are nearly bare now, that situation is going to change in the next couple of weeks, as the group begins to gear up for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
That drive starts this weekend, as the Salvation Army will be one of the main beneficiaries of Saturday’s “fill the van” event held by Colorado Mountain Express. That event — from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. outside of valley grocery stores — will bring in a lot of food to the Salvation Army’s food pantry. The Vail Daily and radio station KZYR are also sponsoring a drive to provide 2,000 pounds of frozen turkeys to the food banks (you can drop off frozen turkeys at either the Vail Daily office in Eagle-Vail or the KZYR studio in Edwards).
That all adds up to tons of much-needed help. But Wolin-Brown said volunteers are needed to help unload, sort and stack that food.
Still more help will be needed Nov. 23, when the Salvation Army fills hundreds of Thanksgiving food baskets. Wolin-Brown said about 600 baskets will be distributed for Thanksgiving, with another 700 or distributed for Christmas.
The basket-preparation is a marvel of organization.
“We can do 300 baskets in about an hour,” Wolin-Brown said.
The van-unloading and basket-filling is just the start of the Salvation Army’s busiest few weeks of the year.
A few years ago, the Salvation Army could match donor families with families in need for its annual Adopt-a-Family program. Once the number of families in need passed about 150, a different approach was needed. Now, the Salvation Army sets up “Santa’s workshop” in an empty storefront at Traer Creek Plaza, the commercial building just to the west of Walmart.
Through the holidays, that store is filled with stored food, then toys and clothing. Smith said families on the Salvation Army’s referral list can come to Santa’s workshop. Every kid is allowed to pick out two toys, and nearly all of the workshop’s 1,800 or so toys will be put in the hands of children this year.
The level of organization needed is a big change from 12 years ago, when Smith first volunteered to be on the Salvation Army’s local board.
“All the needs have grown as the population and need have grown,” Smith said.
Then there’s the need for bell-ringers. This year’s bell-ringing campaign — the charity’s most visible fundraiser — starts Nov. 29, the day after Thanksgiving.
Wolin-Brown said the charity was able to put more people into the bell-ringing effort last year, putting more ringers in front of stores for more hours than ever before. The push paid off, and the chapter was able to raise $50,000 from bell-ringing last year.
Beyond visibility for the Salvation Army, Wolin-Brown said bell-ringing is an important way to get more people involved in the charity. Sometimes, she said, even client families will have their kids drop spare change from a shopping trip.
So far, though, the volunteers have come when their help is needed.
“What we’ve needed has been there when we need it,” Smith said.
A big part of that is the community, Smith said. But another element has come in the past few years from the valley’s police, fire and ambulance crews.
Cops often help deliver food baskets, Smith said, which can give some residents a more positive opinion of people most people see only when something is wrong.
“It helps with their relations with the community, and I think it’s good for society as a whole,” Smith said.
With all that help over the span of a few weeks, Wolin-Brown is excited, but also looking forward to the post-holiday lull.
“This is the craziest time of the year,” she said.
To help, or for more information, go to www.salvationarmyvail.org or call 970-748-0704.