More and more south-metro families are turning to nonprofits for help with gifts and food at the holidays.
Farmington police officers Jim Constantineau, left, and Jim Murphy gave Santa a bit of a helping hand as they emptied the gift box at Econo Foods in Farmington. Many organizations south of the river are stepping up their efforts this holiday season to help families.
The Toys for Town boxes scattered around Farmington usually fill up quickly in December.
This year, as requests for help pour in faster than ever before, the donation boxes are looking a little empty.
"We have not been able to fill up any of them," said Marjie Boese, who coordinates the program through the Farmington Police Department. "I'm hoping we're just off to a slow start."
Last year, the Toys for Town program provided gifts for children in nearly 100 families in the Farmington School District. This year, 70 families had signed up for the program by the first week of December.
Other groups that offer holiday help -- gifts, food or both -- to south-metro residents in need are also seeing a continued increase in demand this year. Last year, such programs assisted more than 15,000 people in Dakota and Scott counties, and organizers say they expect equal or greater demand this year. Many families who have inquired this year about holiday programs have never done so before.
"The people that are in need are the people who are working but they need a little help during the holiday times," said Linda Shelton, community service director at the CAP Agency. "They might be able to pay rent, but you throw one or two extra little things in and they need a little help."
Most agencies say they have been able to keep up with demand, but they also note that the need doesn't go away after the holidays.
"The community members who live in these counties, they're just really supportive and do a wonderful job," Shelton said.
The Lakeville Lions, for example, stepped up to help the nonprofit 360 Communities meet growing requests through its annual Armful of Love Campaign.
The Lions adopted seven families four years ago, then 12 the next year, then 15 in 2009, and now 27 families for this Christmas.
"If we can make it happen, why not? Make it a good Christmas," said Debbie Laugerude, who spearheaded the effort with her husband, Jerry. "The need is so bad out there."
In Dakota County, nearly 6 percent of residents lived in poverty in 2009 -- a measure defined by the federal government as an income of $22,050 for a family of four. Median income in the county is down in 2010, and public assistance cases have more than doubled since 2000, according to the county's Community Indicators Report.
The amount of food distributed by food shelves around the county, relatively steady at 800,000 pounds annually, jumped to 1.1 million pounds in 2007 and then 1.6 million pounds in 2008.
The Eagan Resource Center, which recently opened a food shelf in Lakeville, saw its client base increase by 58 percent this year. The two food shelf locations are expected to serve 800 families a month going forward.
"I don't care what the economists say, the recovery hasn't touched the average American and the average American family," said John Kemp, executive director of Neighbors Inc. in northern Dakota County. "We're seeing lots and lots of people who a year ago didn't need help."
As the holiday season and its usual uptick in giving approached, the Salvation Army saw a flood of requests to volunteer for bell-ringing duties outside stores or sorting and distributing gifts and food. But monetary donations are slower to come in than they were last year.
"We're finding people who are willing to volunteer in place of being able to give," said Annette Bauer, a Salvation Army spokeswoman.
It's heartening, but also shocking, she said: "All these agencies do all this work. There are that many kids, that many families that need help."
Katie Humphrey • 952-882-9056