This year was the program’s biggest operation yet. The Lions spent $12,000 on groceries and with help from the Rotary, reached 135 families from Wardsboro to Readsboro, giving a few weeks’ supply of food to nearly 250 adults and 175 children valleywide.
The Holiday Basket Grocery Program began as a service that gave out Christmas turkey dinners to those in need of a hot meal. Over time the Lions Club began to realize the economic hardship of those in the area, and developed the program into one that provides entire families with up to a three-week supply of nonperishable foods, and a one-week supply of fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats. This year the program reached families in Readsboro, Searsburg, Whitingham, Halifax, Dover, Wilmington, Wardsboro, and Woodford.
“One meal is well received, but how helpful is it?” said Jennifer Betit-Engel, who leads the program’s committee and serves as secretary for the Whitingham-Halifax Lions. “We think it’s never good to see anyone hungry. For clubs like ours it’s good to give to people who need a little extra help, especially over the holidays.”
The program gets its food through both wholesale suppliers and shopping locally. A few years ago, the Lions scored a relationship with the Vermont Food Bank and changed from the monotonous process of buying groceries at stores, trip by trip, to receiving the quantity they need in one large delivery, which this year was seven pallets of food. The Lions do still shop locally however, purchasing produce from places like Blue Mountain Produce, as well as larger grocery and department stores. Chicken, turkey or ham is purchased for each basket as well, depending on family size. This much food does cost a pretty penny, but with donations from large and small businesses, as well as their own fundraising, the Lions and Rotary are able to fund the program. The Lions alone raised $7,000 for the program through their annual Hungry Lion Bike Tour.
Those in need are often found by asking school nurses, bus drivers, town clerks, and the food bank. Betit-Engel said that many families are surprised and ask “How did you know I needed help?” but all feel a burden lifted at what can be a tough time of year. “There’s a lot of pride in Vermonters,” said Betit-Engel. “Some people may be willing to tell you their needs all the time, there are many who never will, and for someone to look out for their needs is always well received.”
Two years ago, after Tropical Storm Irene, the whole valley was in need of help so the Lions asked the Rotary to use their manpower and help spread food to as many families in the valley as they could. The Lions and Rotary have gotten together on the Friday before Christmas ever since, to pack baskets full with bags of groceries for their Saturday delivery. The program received so much food this year that the baskets were stuffed at Frank Sprague’s Stone Puddles and metal workshop. The year before it was done in Rotary member and holiday basket program coordinator Debbie Bradshaw’s basement.
Rotary was more than happy to add helping the hungry to their long list of charitable contributions throughout the valley. “The Rotary has taken a vested interest in helping people in this valley,” said Bradshaw. “We have single moms and parents who are one paycheck away from poverty, and we live in a very different place. But hunger and heat are issues that we’re trying to help with. It was an unmet need, and we’re always looking for ways to reach out.”
Part of the Rotary’s work includes trucking pallets of food to Wardsboro to be distributed from the town’s three churches. The program also delivers poinsettias to those in need of cheer after the death of a loved one, suffering an illness, or who are just in need of a nice gift. This year 50 flowers were delivered to families in the eight towns.
Betit-Engel said that while seeing names taken off the list is encouraging year to year, nothing compares to helping ease the hardships of a neighbor.
“One time I can remember Ralph Dell was delivering food and he had a big white beard,” said Betit-Engel. “He walked up to this family’s house with food while they were trying to figure out how they were going to eat and how to get heat. Ralph walked in and said ‘We heard you needed help,’ and the kids said ‘Santa came and brought food.’ There are families under the radar, and we look for them.”