HOPE readies holiday food, gifts

MIDDLEBURY — While the outdoor temperatures until recently have screamed “spring,” the calendar reads November — a time of year when officials and volunteers at the organization Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE) become members of Santa’s honorary elves association to make sure the county’s low-income residents will have a nice meal and presents for their children as the holiday season takes hold.
Wednesday, Nov. 8, saw a huge tractor trailer truck pull up at HOPE’s headquarters on Boardman Street in Middlebury carrying much-needed supplies for the traditional Thanksgiving and Christmas food boxes available to people who otherwise couldn’t afford a nice holiday meal. Members of the Middlebury College lacrosse team helped unload the truck and it’s bounty of turkeys and other tasty edibles that HOPE purchased from the Vermont Food Bank.
Beginning Wednesday, Nov. 15, qualifying families can come to HOPE and assemble their free holiday food boxes. A turkey is, of course, the centerpiece of each box, though the organization offers folks the option of a $15 gift card to one of the local grocery stores if they would prefer to get their bird elsewhere. The family can then choose from a variety of side dishes, including cranberry sauce, stuffing, pie mixes, potatoes, fruit, vegetables, chicken broth, gravy and other items to round out their holiday meal.
Jeanne Montross, executive director of HOPE, said the organization is particularly flush with apples this year. Some local orchards generously donated surplus apples through HOPE’s annual gleaning program, which allows the nonprofit to harvest seasonal vegetables and fruit from area farms that might otherwise go to waste or be composted.
As of Monday, 38 households had signed up for a holiday food box, according to Montross.
Qualifying households must earn less than 185 percent of the federal poverty guideline, which is around $44,000 per year for a family of four. Families must also pre-register  to get on the holiday food box list.
HOPE last year provided a combined total of 386 food boxes, with most families (257) choosing to have their free meal for Thanksgiving.
“We’re seeing some large families,” Montross said of a concerning trend among those ordering the food boxes and using HOPE’s food shelf this year.
Montross stressed the holiday meal is intended to be a special treat for recipients, made possible through the generosity of other community members.
“It is empowering,” she said of the ability for HOPE clients to put together their holiday meals.
Montross estimated HOPE invests around $2,000 each year in the holiday food boxes. She marveled at the generosity of local residents and farmers whose donations have helped keep HOPE’s financial outlay as low as possible. That way, HOPE can maximize its resources for programs that help feed, clothe and keep people warm during the balance of the year.
People who have pre-registered for their Thanksgiving food boxes can pick them up Nov. 15-22, between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. on weekdays and from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday, Nov. 18. Those who choose to have a Christmas food box can pick it up Dec. 15-22, between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. on weekdays and from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday, Dec. 16.
While some volunteers were sorting and organizing the most recent food donations on Monday, others were organizing wares in the HOPE Holiday Shop, which ensures all Addison County children up to age 18 will have gifts to unwrap on Christmas Day.
The shop features new clothing, toys, books and other items provided by area residents or purchased by HOPE with donated funds. A large chunk of the donations come through gift idea tags that contributors pluck from Christmas trees set up at area businesses, churches and institutions, including Middlebury College, UTC Aerospace Systems, the National Bank of Middlebury and Agri-Mark/Cabot.
The Catholic Churches of St. Mary’s in Middlebury, St. Peter’s in Vergennes and St. Ambrose in Bristol were scheduled to set up their Christmas tree gift tags this week to get an early start to the donation effort, according to Helen Haerle, coordinator of the HOPE Holiday Shop.
And the news so far is good for qualifying families scheduling shopping visits to the HOPE store, which served an estimated 567 people last year.
Haerle said the shop already has a nice inventory of gifts and clothing, thanks to a holdover in donations received toward the end of last year’s holiday season. And Haerle has a solid roster of around 10 helpers this year, up from the handful of folks who were available last holiday season.
“It makes organizing things go a lot faster,” Haerle said of the extra hands, which were busy hanging clothing of all colors and sizes and placing toys into sections based on the recipients’ gender and age group.
Items in particular demand include socks and underwear for all children’s sizes, mittens and hats in boys’ colors, and toys/games for children ages 4-6 and up. Haerle said the shop at this point doesn’t need items for infants and toddlers.
Churches in Middlebury, Bristol and Vergennes were scheduled to set out their gift idea tags this week to kick off the donation drive, Haerle said.
As with the food boxes, qualifying families must earn less than 185 percent of the federal poverty guideline, and they must pre-schedule their shopping trip.
Here’s how it works:
A family (or family designee) is allotted around 15 minutes for their shopping trip. Each child in the family can have a set of clothes, including a top and a bottom. If the child is in more dire need of winter coat and snow pants, those can be substituted for the top and bottom.
Teens are given the option of a gift card to a local store to substitute for one of the clothing/toy categories.
Each child can also have underwear, a hat and mittens, a nice toy, and three “extras” from a bin that includes such knickknacks as stickers, matchbox cars and action figures.
To round things out, each child may also have a coloring book, crayons and “several books,” according to Haerle.
For the first time this year, the shop will allow folks to pick a family gift, such as a crockpot, toaster or blanket. The shop could use more family-related gifts, according to Haerle.
The shop has wrapping paper and tags so parents can wrap the gifts for Christmas morning.
The holiday shop will open to shoppers on Monday, Nov. 27. It will be open Monday through Friday, through Dec. 22, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and also from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday, Dec. 16.
Haerle is no stranger to organizing free gifts for children. She coordinated the former St. Mary’s Christmas Shop for 15 years before merging that operation with HOPE’s annual effort.
“It gives you a lot of enjoyment,” Haerle said of her volunteer work at the holiday shop. “I’ve always enjoyed volunteering and helping other people.”
She’s also touched by the words of gift recipients who remind her that without the help from HOPE, their kids would not have presents to open.
“There are a lot of people out there who are in need,” Haerle said. “There are families who are just getting by, week to week.”
This is Martha Baldwin’s first year volunteering at the HOPE Holiday Shop.
“It’s so refreshing to see there are people who care enough to spend the money to provide for people who don’t have the money (for gifts),” she said.
People interested in donating to the food basket and holiday shop efforts, or who would like to register for either or both services, should call HOPE at 388-3608.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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