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Monday, November 9, 2009

In rough times, need for help even greater

Stacy Milbouer

It’s overwhelming. There are hundreds and hundreds of people in our community who, for the first time in their lives, don’t have the money to make Thanksgiving dinner, buy a winter coat for themselves or put a Christmas gift under the tree for their children. Many of them don’t even have a home in which to put a tree, cook a turkey or hang a coat.

It’s bad. Really bad. And those in social services in our community who are desperately trying to staunch the flow of extreme need are worried sick that they won’t be able to give help to those who have asked for it.

Because of the high unemployment rate, increasing home foreclosures and layoffs, more people need the basics in life and many of them have never needed help before. In fact, many of them have donated their time and money before. So those numbers have increased and at the same time donations are way down.

“If everyone could just do one thing – one thing,” said Salvation Army Social Worker Rosemarie Dykeman, “It would help.”

Dykeman was taking a break from the final Telegraph Santa Fund sign-up day this week. In total, more than 1,000 families with more than 2,000 children have signed up for Santa Fund help – a whopping 35 percent of whom are people who are asking for help for the first time, which is also more than twice as many first timers as last year.

Both the Salvation Army and Nashua Pastoral Care register families and distribute gifts for The Telegraph Santa Fund, which was started by The Telegraph in 1962 to help struggling parents provide gifts for their children during the holidays. They are on the front line when it comes to meeting the needs of people who are or have recently become impoverished.

But the problems for these people far exceeds just having enough money to buy Christmas gifts for their children.

This year, with area shelters closer to capacity, families have to go out of town, leaving behind family and their children’s schools. Others have lost their jobs and, in turn, their homes and health insurance or can’t afford heat.

“We’re seeing more and more first time families, where someone has been laid off and in turn loses their home and often health insurance,” said Maryse Wirbal, chief executive officer of Nashua Pastoral Care. “We talked to a man who got laid off from his job, lost his health insurance and now his wife has been diagnosed with cancer. They have small children and they have nothing. This is the first time he’s ever asked for help and you could tell it was very, very difficult for him.”

In order to receive Santa Fund help, annual family income must be 200 percent of poverty level – for a family of two under $29,140, family of three under $36,620, family of 4, under $44,100 and a family of five or more, under $51,580 a year.

All applicants for the Santa Fund are carefully screened, explained Wirbal and Dykeman. Every person has to bring in a photo ID, a birth certificate for all children in the household and social security cards for each adult. They also are required to bring a copy of their 2008 income tax or verification of all household income including TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), child support, Social Security benefits and pay stubs and a copy of a current lease and verification of address.

Applicants are also asked to sign a release which enables those processing applications to check to see if applicants are signed up for holiday assistance with another agency.

“This happens sometimes without the family’s knowledge,” said Wirbal. “Somebody from their church or school will put them on a list for help without them knowing about it.”

If all those criteria are met, families are eligible for Santa Fund help, and that’s where the worry starts.

“We just pray we can help everyone who has signed up for help,” said Nashua Salvation Army Major Barbara Carvill.

Things are so bad, that the Salvation Army has also set up a special day for Santa Fund applicants to receive warm winter clothing and she’s also worried that there won’t be enough turkeys or food vouchers for everyone needing help to put a Thanksgiving meal on the table.

In fact, on the intake day Dykeman took time out to talk to a frail man in his 80s who said he was embarrassed to come in and ask for help for the first time in his life. “He wasn’t here for toys. He has two kinds of cancer,” Dykeman said, watching the man leave the building. “He and his wife have nothing. They don’t have any money to make a Thanksgiving dinner.”

Dykeman gave the man a voucher for food, but she’s worried. “There are so many people who have come to us for food for Thanksgiving, and I’m worried we won’t be able to provide it.”

Those who wish to help with the clothing drive are asked to bring new or very gently used winter coats, boots, hats and gloves this week, to the Salvation Army’s 1 Montgomery Street Avenue location in Nashua 9 a.m.-noon and 1-4 p.m. through Nov. 11.

Donations of frozen turkeys or much-needed grocery store vouchers can be dropped off at the Montgomery Avenue location as well.

Stacy Milbouer can be reached at