Four Christmases have passed since the recession officially ended in 2009, but according to south metro nonprofits, this holiday season is showing that many are still struggling to pay the bills.

More people are calling them for help, and not just in the weeks leading up to Christmas, but throughout the year.

Over the next six weeks, said Joe Vaughan, vice president of development at CAP Agency, the pressure on its food shelves in Shakopee and Rosemount will double.

“It is a direct correlation with the amount of days kids are out of school for the holidays,” he said.

Fortunately for social service organizations and churches, the rise in holiday donations and volunteering makes it easier to meet the increased need not only for essentials such as food and clothing, but also for sponsor-a-family programs that allow low-income parents to give gifts to their children.

“In Dakota County, the generosity is amazing,” said Tony Compton, communications manager for 360 Communities. The Burnsville-based nonprofit runs Armful of Love, a holiday gift program that last year matched 940 families with gift-giving sponsors. “We never have trouble finding people to help us with either donations or their time.”

But, Compton said, the economic troubles of low-income families are growing as well. In the last fiscal year, he said, food shelf activity for 360 Communities grew 8 percent.

Nonprofits in Eagan, Lakeville and other south-metro cities also are reporting year-over-year growth in both holiday and non-holiday programs.

The Salvation Army, which operates a free, application-based “toy shop” in Burnsville on Dec. 20, expanded its social service operations in the south metro three years ago. “We went from serving 66 households a month in 2009 to 461 households a month now,” said spokeswoman Annette Bauer.

Vaughan, of CAP, said demand for its Hope for the Holidays and holiday toy distribution program has grown along with the need for its food shelf and other programs. He regularly visits civic groups and businesses to solicit help.

“We almost have to cap the holiday programs in some ways until we can grow more sponsors and donations to meet the needs,” he said.

More families need help

Churches have reported similar increases in need from allied nonprofits.

At Shepherd of the Valley, a 9,200-member Lutheran congregation in Apple Valley, the use of programs that provide coats and other winter wear spiked over the last couple of weeks, said spokesman Trip Sullivan.

“There has just been huge demand this year,” he said; the church plans to “call people to action” in the coming weeks. Once that happens, he said, members will step up to the challenge.

“We’ve never had an issue where we had a demand and couldn’t meet it. … We’ve been blessed to have a very generous congregation.”

At the border of Burnsville and Eagan, Mary, Mother of the Church has witnessed both an increase in the number of people offering help and the population of people seeking it.

“There are a lot more working families than we saw 10 years ago,” said Jamie Maloney, the pastoral care associate for the 1,700-member Catholic congregation. “We also have a lot more parishioners using our food shelf.”

Maloney has also seen pressure on middle- and low-income people through an area e-mail network of churches and nonprofits that share charity requests. Among the challenges are mental health issues and the rising price of rent.

“Burnsville used to be more affordable,” she said, “but those rents are going up, too.”

This year, Maloney said, the church’s Thanksgiving basket program will feed 412 families of four, which will be distributed to agencies like the Eagan Resource Centers. The church also has an emergency food pantry, which has seen an increase in demand.

“Even though we like to think the recession is over,” she said, “for some people it’s not.”

Broader need

In more than 30 years at South St. Paul-based Neighbors Inc., Joan Rhodes can’t point to another time so many people were coming to the social service agency for help. Rhodes, the director of programs, said 40 families a day apply for help to pay for Christmas gifts, which is more than in previous years.

Neighbors Inc. also runs an adopt-a-family gift program among its other holiday programs. But Rhodes is more focused on the year-round need.

“A year ago we were helping 400 families a month,” she said. “This year it’s gone up to 500.” Why? The high cost of rent, she said, the high cost of day care, and jobs that pay less than they used to.

Several years ago, Rhodes said, the typical family visited Neighbors Inc.’s food shelf three or four times a year, and the shelf could be run with 20 volunteers. Today the shelf needs 50 volunteers, and families come in every month. “Some families that were donors in the past are now recipients,” she said.

‘All year round we share this story’

The Community Action Center of Northfield has not seen an increase in demand for Christmas Sharing, its annual free toy and clothing shop. Director Jim Blaha says the program anticipates serving 900 children this Christmas, about the same as the past several years.

But underlying that consistency, Blaha said, is the fact that the families who rely on Christmas Sharing are the same families who need help from its food shelf and free weekly meals throughout the year.

“People tend to think more of giving around this time of year,” he said. “Any way that happens is good, it’s noble, I applaud it.” But, he said, “we try to generate this kind of response year-round.

“All year round we work to share the story.”


Graison Hensley Chapman is a Northfield freelance writer.