Hopefully all valley residents have something to be thankful for this holiday — even if times are hard and dollars are scarce.
At the very least, people who are struggling the hardest should be able to enjoy a special holiday meal with the help of a corps of volunteers who collected donations, assembled food baskets and provided home delivery for their neighbors in need.
“It is a pretty amazing community effort,” said Cherie Paller, downvalley food basket organizer for the local Salvation Army. “What I really love seeing is the families with young children and the groups of kids who are organized and come in to volunteer.”
Last Saturday was mobilization day for the Salvation Army Thanksgiving food basket volunteers. They gathered at two locations — Avon Elementary School and the Eagle River Center. In short order, they had collected and boxed the food for 500 baskets — 350 at the eastern end of the county and 150 for the west end.
Each basket contains a voucher to purchase a turkey or ham, canned vegetables, muffin mix, canned pumpkin and a pie shell, gravy mix, stuffing and potatoes. Beyond the staples, food items collected throughout the year are distributed as well — everything from tins of sardines to cans of soup to boxed macaroni and cheese.
At the Eagle River Center location, the basket assembly coincided with the popular Winter Market and Holiday Fair — providing a festive atmosphere as vendors pulled out their wares and shoppers assembled around the hall. The classic homily about many hands making light work couldn’t have proven more accurate. Paller noted a Vail Eagle Valley Junior Hockey team, together with a group of parent coordinators, provided a bit of a jump in the volunteer numbers in Eagle.
“Really it only took 10 to 15 minutes to fill the boxes,” said Paller. From there, volunteers loaded up about 100 of the boxes and drove off to make deliveries. By 10 a.m. Saturday, crews were already dispersing.
“Of course, what people don’t see is the weeks of preparation beforehand,” said Tsu Wolin-Brown, executive director of Vail Valley Salvation Army. She noted volunteers have been collecting food for months before they ferried it to the basket assembly sites. At the sites themselves, there is early morning set up and post-assembly cleanup to organize.
“It went really fast. It was surprising how fast it went,” said Abbey Jewett, a local teen who volunteered for the first time ever as part of her work to collect 15 hours of community service in preparation for a Children’s Global Alliance service trip to Cambodia.
On the other end of the spectrum, volunteer Mikel “Pappy” Kerst has been involved in the food basket program for decades.
“Grandma always said you need to give back to where you live, that volunteering is important. We used to drive 26 miles one way to help out back in Wray,” he said.
Vail Valley Salvation Army hopes that lots of local people will take Kerst’s grandmother’s advice. The work is over for Thanksgiving, but that holiday just marks the start of the organization’s busiest season.
The holiday season is crunch time for Salvation Army operations. Food collection efforts amp up, Red Kettle bell ringers hit the streets and the Holiday Cabin opens its doors in ensure all local kids get a toy at Christmas.
According to Wolin-Brown, the Thanksgiving food baskets traditionally decimate the local food banks, which means the volunteer operations have only a month to restock their shelves. Last weekend’s Winter Market in Eagle requested that shoppers bring in a canned food item as admission.
“The food pantries were very slim last week,” said Paller. “The Winter Market did help replenish them.”
When it comes time for the Christmas food baskets, Salvation Army provides the food times and the Eagle Community United Church organizes the assembly. There are Salvation Army collection boxes for canned food items at various locations around the county. Many companies incorporate canned food drives into their holiday celebrations and local organizations also help with food collections.
While families naturally are grateful to have food provided for the holidays, everyone knows that it just isn’t Christmas for kids if there are no presents under the tree.
The Holiday Cabins will be open Saturday, Dec. 7 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 8 from noon to 6 p.m. at two locations — a special holiday store front at Traer Plaza in Avon and at the High Altitude Aviation Training Site on the north ramp at the Eagle County Regional Airport. Families in need visit the sites to select a new toy for each child. The Holiday Cabin will also be open during evening hours at times yet to be determined.
Throughout December new toy donations can be dropped off at the Vail Valley Salvation Army offices, located at 322 East Beaver Creek Boulevard in Avon. Collection boxes are also set up at locations around the county.
Salvation Army’s biggest holiday push heralds itself outside of large retailers in the valley — the Red Kettle Bell Ringers.
According to Wolin-Brown, 90 percent of the proceeds from the local bell ringing efforts stay within the county. Where does the 90 cents of every $1 go? To efforts including the following:
Emergency transportation and transient help.
Utilities payment assistance
Help for seniors
Help for families who need food, shelter, clothing, household items and minor home or vehicle repairs.
Holiday food basket
The local Adopt-a-Family program
The canteen commercial kitchen on wheels that can provide 200 meals per hour to emergency responders.
Durable medical equipment loan program which provides wheelchairs, shower seats, toilet seat rise, walkers, crutches and other equipment at no charge for people in need.
From Nov. 29 to Dec. 24, bell ringers will man the kettles at City Markets in Eagle, Vail and Avon; Safeway in Vail; Wal-Mart in Avon, Edwards Village Market and Columbine Market in Gypsum. Each volunteer signs up for a two-hour shift and anyone with rudimentary math skills can figure out that is a lot of time to schedule. To volunteer visit the local website at www.salvationarmyvail.org and click on the volunteer tab. When filling out the form, note the preferred work location.