By Tine Roycroft
Each year, the holiday season seems to start earlier and earlier. Television commercials start challenging us to find that perfect gift for family, friends and acquaintances by late October. The stress heightens in November, when some radio stations begin their 24/7 holiday music lineups and we’re hit by the realization that Thanksgiving is just around the corner. By Dec. 1, many of us have devolved into anxiety-filled, self-absorbed, rude consumer blobs who are willing to push our way to the front of the line or cut someone off to snag a parking space at the insanely crowded mall.
It’s difficult to step away from the holiday madness and remember that there are people who are facing a completely different set of stressors. They’re not wondering what decadent dish to make for a holiday gathering; they’re wondering if they’ll be able to put any food on the table at all. They’re not vying to buy their kids the latest iPhone; they’re struggling with the reality that there won’t be any presents at all. And they aren’t thinking of ways to avoid visiting the in-laws; they’re sadly planning on spending another season alone.
And these issues ~ poverty, hunger, homelessness and loneliness ~ can be found in our own neighborhoods. Luckily, there are a number of organizations, located right here in Worcester, who have made it their missions to bring happiness and hope. These organizations have the power to change lives for the better, but they can’t do it without your support. So step away from the crowded malls this holiday season, put down the credit cards and turn your attention to one (or all!) of these incredible organizations. Whether you’re giving financial support, volunteering or simply spreading the word and raising awareness, you’ll find yourself giving an incredible present to the Worcester community.
Worcester County Food Bank
Hunger is one of the most prevalent problems our society faces on a day-to-day basis, and yet, it’s not often recognized as the powerful negative force it truly is. Each day, many of our neighbors make choices between their food bills and other necessities. Young parents wonder if they should buy groceries for the week or pay the electric bill. Elderly people have to choose between medication and food. So many children in our community go to school hungry, and then go to bed hungry.
The Worcester County Food Bank is a collaboration of local nonprofit human and social service providers; donors from the food industry; corporate, government, civic and private sectors; and individual volunteers whose support and partnership is focused on “providing relief from hunger” to those in Central Massachusetts. Since its incorporation in 1982, the Worcester County Food Bank has collected and distributed more than 50 million pounds of food and grocery products through a network of local shelters, food pantries, senior centers, residential rehabilitation programs, soup kitchens, after-school programs and neighborhood centers that help feed hungry people of all ages in 60 communities in Central Massachusetts.
“Supporting the Worcester County Food Bank is an act of kindness that provides good food for your neighbors who are struggling to put food on the table,” Executive Director Jean McMurray said. “If everyone does their part, it all adds up to have a huge impact in the lives of children, senior citizens living on a fixed income and individuals who are unemployed or working two jobs to make ends meet.”
For more information, go to foodbank.org.
The holidays often stir up beautiful images of opening a much-loved toy in front of the Christmas tree or receiving an exciting gift during one of the nights of Hanukkah. As kids, we can get caught up in the fantasies of new dolls, new pieces of sports equipment or new video games, and we hope with all our might that by some wondrous stroke of luck, we’ll receive everything on our wish list.
For many families faced with hard financial decisions, toys simply aren’t in the budget this year. Heating bills, car repairs and food on the table take priority. This is when the Toys for Tots program steps in and brings gifts to the very deserving boys and girls who would otherwise not receive them. This program aims to deliver not only toys but also messages of hope.
Supporters can help this great program in several ways: Donate a toy at one of your area toy drop locations; host a Toys for Tots event at your home, office or other venue and collect toys for Toys for Tots; or volunteer at the local warehouse.
Anita Gallant has worked with the organization for 14 years and has acted as coordinator for Worcester County for the past 12.
“It can be heartbreaking,” Gallant said. “Each year, I get at least three families who are homeless. Without Toys for Tots, their kids wouldn’t get anything for the holidays. We ask for people to donate for ages 0-13. Even the little babies need gifts. And every present helps.”
For more information, go to worcester-ma.toysfortots.org/local-coordinator-sites/lco-sites/default.aspx
Throughout the years, the Boys & Girls Club has helped thousands of young people develop the qualities they needed to become responsible citizens and community leaders. Actors, politicians, teachers and sports stars have been known to credit this organization as the key to their success. Through education, recreation and leadership programs, caring staff members forge incredible relationships with kids who need it the most. At the Worcester Boys & Girls Club, the success of the program is evident, with 97 percent of the 2013 graduating high school seniors attending college and the remaining 3 percent either enlisted in the military or working full time.
“For 125 years, the Boys & Girls Club of Worcester has been in our community providing programs and services to disadvantaged youth,” Liz Hamilton, director of development, said. “We serve all kinds of kids: kids who do not have a support system, kids from broken homes and kids who are at risk of joining gangs or participating in unhealthy activities. We save lives.
“In order for us to help kids who need us most, we charge only $25 a year for a membership fee. It actually costs between $500-$1,000 to provide each child with the programs and services they need. Without the support of the community through donations and volunteerism, we would not be able to serve the thousands of kids who walk through our doors each year. We are fortunate to have such strong support from individuals, corporations and foundations. Our donors understand that it is everyone’s responsibility to take care of our children and that, together, we can make a difference.”
For more information, go to bgcworcester.org.
Beyond our human families and neighbors, there’s another group of beings who are often affected negatively during tough economic times ~ our furry (and scaly and feathered) friends. Sadly, many people surrender their beloved pets because they simply cannot afford them anymore. In the best-case scenarios, the pets are taken to nearby shelters and not turned out onto the streets. Either way, there are a number of loving animals who find themselves, once again, looking for their “forever homes.”
Thankfully, we can depend on the Worcester Animal Rescue League (WARL) ~ one of the largest no-kill, limited intake animal shelters in the region. The shelter accepts pets only when there is enough shelter space to do so and prides itself on not establishing a time limit for healthy and adoptable animals. The staff and volunteers work constantly with foster homes, rescue groups and other shelters nationwide to place animals in the best possible circumstance.
Apart from being an excellent shelter, WARL offers boarding services, pet baths and nail trims, a low-cost spay and neuter clinic and a low-cost vaccine and microchip clinic.
“We’re a no-kill shelter; we run completely on donations,” Executive Director Allie (Simone) Tellier said. “We’re here for the animals, but we are so very fortunate to live in a community where people understand what we’re trying to do and feel the same way about pets.
“We couldn’t do any of this work without our supporters,” Tellier said. “We’re so very thankful.”
For more information on WARL, visit worcester-arl.org.
AIDS Project Worcester is the primary and most comprehensive AIDS Service Organization (ASO) in Central Massachusetts. It is the second largest ASO in New England, providing services to persons living with HIV/AIDS since 1987.
This organization has been providing a comprehensive range of services to support the medical care and various service needs of persons living with HIV/AIDS and those at greatest risk for the disease. All services are offered in English, Spanish and American Sign Language (translation services are available for speakers of other languages) and are available in the home, hospital, respite settings, detoxification/substance abuse treatment programs, shelters, neutral locations, various community settings and more.
One of the greatest things about AIDS Project Worcester is that the group doesn’t just stop at helping those infected by HIV/AIDS but also helps affected families.
“About 90 percent of the people who access services here earn less than $10,000 a year,” said Martha Axton, director of community relations. “HIV/AIDS is no longer a death sentence, thankfully, but if you’re homeless or facing the reality of losing your home or dealing with domestic violence, it’s easy to forget that you need to take your medications.”
Axton is quick to point out just how much of an impact supporters can have at the organization.
“Thanks to a very generous business in the area,” Axton said, “We are going to be able to distribute Thanksgiving baskets with turkeys, bags of potatoes, stuffing ~ everything you’d expect for a good Thanksgiving. It means so much.”
To find out more, go to aidsprojectworcester.org.
Imagine leaving your home country behind and finding yourself in a different society, where the language is foreign, the traditions and culture are strange, and you’re not certain where to find a friend or a trusted advisor.
African Community Education is a community-oriented educational program to help African refugee and immigrant children living in Worcester.
The students attending the incredible programs at ACE have come to the U.S. from nations suffering from war and political or social instability. As a result, these children were unable to engage in meaningful schooling. When they arrive in the U.S., they are enrolled in school according to their age, rather than their actual level of education, and thus, are often years behind their peers in most subjects. These kids are bright and motivated, and ACE seeks to draw on these strengths and close the gaps in their education.
One of ACE’s students, a young woman named Antoinette, has been forever changed by the efforts.
“I started the [ACE] program knowing only a little English, but now, here I am speaking, writing and reading in English. ACE has great teachers that are always there when you need help. No matter what kind of problem you have, someone is there to help you. If you feel like you are not safe, ACE is there. Right now, I’ve moved onto higher grade levels and I’m doing better in school because of ACE. ACE has been there for me no matter what.”
For more information, go to acechildren.org.
I know I’m biased, but there’s (almost) nothing as confusing as being a teenage girl ~ especially being a teenage girl in 2013. Navigating the tumultuous waters of media, technology, physical development and the politics of the lunch table can be heart-wrenching. And the confusion isn’t confined to one environment ~ both home and school alike can be a hodgepodge of difficult choices.
Luckily, for more than 97 years, Girls Inc. of Worcester has been serving girls in Greater Worcester by providing research-based curricula delivered by trained professionals. The organization equips girls to lead healthy and physically active lives, achieve academically, manage money, navigate media messages and discover an interest in science, technology, engineering and math. Last year, Girls Inc. served more than 1,800 girls through its facility-based and outreach programs. Girls Inc. continuously inspires girls to challenge themselves to learn, grow and be an effective part of our community, but they can’t do it alone. Anne McCarthy, director of communications and volunteers, has some great suggestions on how interested donors can help.
“This year, our theme for our holiday party is ‘Stocking’ Up on Books,” McCarthy said. “Literacy is infused in all of our programming, and every day, many girls take advantage of Homework Help here at Girls Inc. of Worcester. By donating age-appropriate books for girls in K-8 and other small school supplies ~ bookmarks, erasers, pencils, etc. ~ each girl will receive a pre-filled stocking while the importance of literacy and Homework Help are being reinforced during this holiday season.”
For more information, visit girlsincworcester.org.
~ Juli Fahey