MERCED — The magic of the holiday season can inspire people from all walks of life to demonstrate the holiday spirit by reaching out and giving to those who are less fortunate.
But representatives of local nonprofits say they could use a hand because they're nowhere near ready to feed the thousands of Mercedians in need this year.
"This is the worst I've seen in 12 years," said Steve Shelton, coordinator of social services at The Salvation Army. Shelton said donations are down about 50 percent in the gifts category, which is mainly coats, canned food and blankets.
"I feel sad for people," Shelton said. "I would much rather say 'yes' than 'no.' "
The Salvation Army has felt the financial pinch all year, forcing it to cut breakfast distribution for the homeless in Merced from five days to three and eliminate Saturday dinners. Other services such as motel room assistance also have been cut.
But they're not the only ones forced to say "no" this season.
"We don't have enough to serve everyone in need," said Sandra Leon-Alfaro, site director of Catholic Charities of Merced. "It's been a continuing problem. There's more people reaching out to charities for basic needs like food, especially this time of year."
Although she said financial and food donations are down, the organization will hand out 130 turkey boxes to preselected families this year.
She reminded residents that every penny counts, which she stretches to help those in need. Leon-Alfaro buys food from the Merced County Food Bank for about 19 cents a pound. Recently, she bought 3,204 pounds of food for $857, mostly canned food, which she said will be gone in one week.
The faces of the hungry can be seen year-round in Merced, but nonprofits are stretched to the limit with increasing numbers of people relying on them each holiday season.
Pastor Prapai Wanlarbkam of The Merced County Rescue Mission said it had 300 turkeys donated this time last year, with about 250 of them to be served on Thanksgiving. As of Monday morning, he said they only had 30.
"This year, we are struggling more than last year," Wanlarbkam said. "People want to help, but they don't have the means. They're hurting, too."
Wanlarbkam said a few regular donors approached him, explaining they just didn't have the money.
Not giving up hope
But Wanlarbkam is not giving up hope. He and his team are reaching out to more businesses.
"I know we'll meet our goal because the people of Merced are very helpful and I know we'll pull together," he said. "I believe that no one should be without a Thanksgiving meal, and that's why we do what we do."
Wanlarbkam noted that they fed 1,000 people last Christmas, but they're gearing up for twice that number this year -- and need about 160 hams to make it happen.
Food and clothing donations are not the only things dwindling this holiday season.
Josie Ricks, secretary at St. Vincent de Paul in Merced, said the struggling store also needs volunteers during the holidays.
"Now that the economy is so bad, we can't afford to hire anyone," Ricks said. "This year is the worst."
Ricks, who has received many phone calls about Thanksgiving and Christmas meals, said they will not sponsor a Thanksgiving dinner if they don't get donations -- and fast. Last year, they handed out 20 turkeys. This year, they have none. Monetary donations also have plummeted, from about $600 a month to $260.
Whether it's a little or a lot, local nonprofit groups welcome any donation.
"It's real important that people do give through their time, their talent, or their treasures," said United Way Executive Director Flip Hassett.
He said this year's donations are down for United Way, which contributed more than $1.5 million to the community last year. "It's these organizations that make Merced County the place to live in, to work in, to play in and raise our families."
Back at The Salvation Army, Shelton is holding out hope people in the community will find a way -- as they have in the past -- to support the organizations that assist all those in need.
"I'm optimistic and hopeful that things will get better before they get worse," he said. "We're hoping people will find a way to dig a little deeper in light of so much need."
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
To help the nonprofits mentioned in the story, please contact them below:
The Salvation Army: 1440 West 12th Street Merced, CA 95341 (209) 383-4225
Catholic Charities of Merced: 336 W Main St # 1 Merced, CA 95340 (209) 383-2494
The Merced County Rescue Mission: 1921 Canal Street Merced, CA 95340 (209) 722-9269
St. Vincent de Paul: 131 West Main Street Merced, CA 95340 (209) 723-2404
United Way of Merced: 658 West Main Street Merced, CA 95340 (209) 383-4242