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Pandemic forces HOPE to alter donation strategies

We’d like to encourage people not to do food drives and toy drives.
Jeanne Montross

MIDDLEBURY — COVID-19 will try to impersonate the Grinch during the upcoming holiday season, but the nonprofit organization Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE) is committed to providing free Christmas treats to children in low-income households even though the pandemic is forcing it to suspend its seasonal gift shop.
HOPE has historically hosted the holiday gift shop at its headquarters at 282 Boardman St. in Middlebury. Coordinated by Kate Selby and staffed by several tireless volunteers, the shop has received, sorted and displayed a myriad of gift options for children up to age 18 who might otherwise not receive something under the Christmas tree. During a “normal” year, qualifying low-income families are invited into the shop to select a few age-appropriate gifts, clothing and books, along with some stocking stuffers.
But this has been far from a normal year due to the coronavirus. HOPE — which provides food, clothing and other basic resources to people dealing with financial crises — has not been able to welcome clients into its offices since mid-March, when COVID-19 began making inroads into Vermont. Instead, clients are asked to wait in the building’s parking lot to receive assistance. 
HOPE officials will use the same social distancing principles for this fall’s food and gift drives that will be so important to low-income families.
“We’re not going to be able to operate our holiday food collection — all of the food drives people do — and we’re also not going to be able to do the holiday shop the same way,” HOPE Executive Director Jeanne Montross said. “We’d like to encourage people not to do food drives and toy drives.”
Instead, donors will be asked to log onto the HOPE website (hope-vt.org) for a list of food-shelf staples and holiday gift options they’d like to finance. Folks will be able to select the items they’d like to fund and donate the pertinent amount directly to HOPE, which can purchase the merchandise at wholesale prices from vendors.
Eligible parents will choose age-appropriate gifts for their children from a list provided by HOPE, whose staff will box the orders and deliver them to parents outside of the building.
The holiday gift shop typically serves 500-550 children per year, according to Montross.
“I’m not sure if the need will be higher this year,” she said. “We’re going to ask people to preregister to get an idea for that, as well as for the holiday food boxes.”
Suspension of the holiday gift shop will lead to a sabbatical for a devoted group of Santa’s helpers, aka the volunteers who help stock and staff it. Many of them are seniors and thus among the most vulnerable to COVID-19.
“It feels really sad because it was always such a rich time with so many volunteers coming in, meeting with clients and talking with them,” Montross said. “But many of our volunteers are in the high-risk category, and to have them in a room with parents nearby is not something we can do. It would not be a wise thing to do.”
Gale Hurd has been a longtime HOPE Holiday Shop volunteer. She’s derived great joy from her association with the shop, and has recruited others to help out through the years. The experience has allowed her and others to witness firsthand the role that HOPE plays in helping low-income families.
“We are all sad that the HOPE Holiday Shop won’t involve our faithful volunteers this year but glad that income-eligible Addison County parents will still be able to choose gifts for their children,” she wrote in an email to the Independent.
Montross said the HOPE website will feature the food shelf and gift shop donation options by early October.
Meanwhile, HOPE officials are currently reaching out to businesses, organizations and civic clubs to explain the new “virtual shopping” system for the 2020 toy and food harvests. Local school children have also historically conducted fall food drives for HOPE, and Montross hopes they and their families will instead support the need to raise money. In this way, children won’t put themselves at potential COVID-19 risk by collecting food door-to-door.
“We just don’t feel it would be wise for us to have people going into stores, bringing things over, school groups crowded together carrying around food, coming into our building,” Montross said.
She acknowledged many food shelf and toy donors in the past have relished being able to do the shopping themselves, adding a personal touch to their philanthropy. But COVID has at least temporarily shut off that option, Montross explained.
 “In a way (donating online) will be more convenient, but we know people like to get involved,” she said.
HOPE officials have their fingers crossed that the new donation system will be embraced by the community. Addison County residents have been incredibly generous to their less fortunate neighbors, Montross said.
In other HOPE news, the organization announced new donation drop-off hours for its popular resale store: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday; and 9:30 to 4 p.m. on Saturday.
Shopping hours will remain 9-5, Monday through Saturday.
John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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