Broomall–Take a moment. Think back over the past month and try to quantify just how many commercials you've seen, jingles you've heard, ads you've taken in–all geared toward getting you to spend, spend and spend some more during the holiday season.
Now take a moment and imagine you had nothing to spend. Nowhere to turn. And nothing to give those you love most. How then would you celebrate the most wonderful time of the year?
In these tough economic times, hardship is a year-round issue. But families feel that strain even more during the holidays. And that's why the food bank volunteers at St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Broomall are going the extra mile to ensure that the families they serve have something extra to look forward to this Christmas.
Hunger issue hits close to home
Almost 30 years ago, local churches and synagogues in Delaware County came together to find a way to help area residents who were going hungry. The result was the Delco Interfaith Food Assistance Network (DIFAN), which started out as a much-needed source for emergency food and supplies.
The problem is, the emergency never ended. In fact, it's gotten progressively worse with the need for food assistance ballooning every year, most dramatically in recent years, according to long-time St. Mark's food bank volunteer Diane Mankin of Broomall.
"The St. Mark's food center started out as a closet that held bags of food," said Mankin. "And whoever was around would hand them out."
Now, St. Mark's serves between 65-70 families per month, on average. Mankin, along with a team of other tireless volunteers, wrangles food, clothing and other donations.
What comes in as boxes of day-old bread from the local Giant, stacks of canned goods from The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) and bounty from local Boy Scout food drives, goes out as balanced, well-stocked bags to support local families. Plus a prepared dinner for needy families on the third Tuesday of each month.
That requires a lot of inventorying, replenishing and organizing. "Some weeks, it's a full-time job," said Mankin. Other weeks, it's not and that's a problem, as it means donations have dropped off. "That's especially common during the summer months when there's just not the push for donations that we see around the holidays," said Mankin.
A bounty of Christmas blessings
"We find that people think to do for others most when they're doing for themselves," Mankin said. That's resulted in a bounty of donations for families in need. And it couldn't have come at a better time.
"We're seeing more and more families where people have lost a job and just can't find another. Or where someone's been laid off and it takes months for the benefits to kick in. That's an especially hard position to be in this time of year," said Mankin.
And that's when St. Mark's can make the most difference. During the holiday season, volunteers turn the food bank into a one-stop Christmas shop.
Families who meet Pennsylvania's minimum income requirements typically receive four bags of groceries once a month. But to make the holiday a little merrier, volunteers have coordinated with area stores and organizations to provide even more Christmas cheer.
Marple Public Library donated books as stocking stuffers for both children and adults. The Acme in Newtown Square contributed stacks of Christmas tree lights and decorations. Members of the Hope Circle from another Methodist community hand-knit warm winter hats in a variety of sizes. And local stores have contributed plenty of paper goods, diapers, soap and toothpaste, essentials you can't buy with food stamps.
St. Mark's volunteers lay all these goods out in a community room, so families can "shop" when they come in to the food bank to pick up their groceries. And as a special Christmas surprise, they'll find an extra voucher from the Newtown Square Giant in their grocery bag this week.
Why? Because we can.
The whole time Mankin was talking with Patch, she was on the move, prepping the food bank for the last pickup day before Christmas–what would turn out to be a very busy and very long day. The only question that stopped her in her tracks was this one: "Why do you do it?"
"Well, that's a strange question," Mankin started off, her brow furrowed, as if the answer should be obvious. But in a time of such great recession and need throughout the nation, when we could use an army of Mankins, we persisted.
"Well, I have been so blessed," said Mankin. "I have so much in my life, and I get such great pleasure out of helping people. These people we're helping…they want to do for others, they want to give back. And it's just that, at this moment in time, this is what life has given them. This is where they are. The deserve all the love and respect in the world, and that's what we give them. Because we can. Someday, I may be in a position where I need help. And someday, their situation could change and they may be in a position to give back. That's how it works."
According to a study by the non-profit Feeding America, the number of families requiring emergency food distribution has jumped 46 percent since 2006. But in the Edgemont, Haverford, Broomall, Morton, Newtown Square, Radnor, Springfield and Swarthmore areas that St. Mark's serves, 70 families have a little more to celebrate this year. And that's how St. Mark's works.
Non-perishable food, clothing and supplies can be dropped off at St. Mark's food bank at 2200 S. Sproul Road in Broomall during the week between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. If you are interested in volunteering or making a monetary donation, call (610) 325-0130.