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DENISE CROSBY: Volunteers needed more than ever at local charities

People exercise Taylor YMCA Elgwhich will begits its annual fundraising campaign next month thalso will include registratifor Y’s large day

People exercise at the Taylor YMCA in Elgin, which will begin its its annual fundraising campaign next month that also will include registration for the Y’s large day camp program. | Sun-Times Media file

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To help out

Northern Illinois Food Bank


Marie Wilkinson Food Pantry


Hesed House


Updated: February 23, 2014 6:38AM

We’re only a couple weeks into 2014, but the holidays are already a fading memory — leaving us with the not-so-merry task of reducing credit card debt and eggnog pounds.

And our post-yuletide morose isn’t made easier by the polar vortex that dropped by after the new year like unwelcome house guests who also brought their three dogs.

While we all try to deal with end-of-year excess, local not-for-profits are struggling with a different kind of “holiday hangover.” As usual, volunteers turned out in droves from Thanksgiving through December, eager to spread peace on Earth and good will toward men, especially those less fortunate.

But after the mistletoe is packed up and we’ve donated our time and turkeys to the needy, let’s face it: All we really want to do is hunker down until Opening Day at the ballpark.

“Unfortunately,” said Diane Renner, director for the Marie Wilkinson Food Pantry in Aurora, “poor people still get hungry after the holidays.”

A shortage of volunteers this time of year is not unique to the Fox Valley. A recent report in the San Francisco Business Times, for example, noted a 10 percent decrease from Bay Area pantries.

Donna Lake, director of communications for the Northern Illinois Food Bank, says the dropoff from family, corporate and service group volunteers after the holidays makes it much more difficult to serve the 800 different feeding programs in a 13-county area.

“We really do need volunteers more than ever,” she said.

As does Michael Cobb, the new director at Hesed House, Aurora’s homeless shelter.

“Because we receive so many volunteer inquiries leading up to and during the holidays, we develop a call list to reach out to folks after the first of the year as openings develop,” he said. “Most holiday-related callers want to serve food on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. And our church groups and others are booked from year to year. So in January, we begin formatting openings and opportunities for the first quarter of the year.”

Old Man Winter doesn’t help the cause. People struggle even more to survive as they must take on additional costs such as higher utility bills and car and furnace repairs. At the same time, volunteer numbers dip because many of those giving their time are older and find it difficult to battle snow, ice and freezing temperatures to serve at pantries or shelters.

Plus “people are just sick of giving by the time January rolls around,” noted Renner. “When people are so depleted, it makes it especially difficult for us to go knocking on doors asking for more.”

Dave Burisek, executive director of the Taylor YMCA in Elgin, calls January a “welcome down time” after the rush of the holiday season that included coat and food drives as well as the Giving Trees.

And of course, he said, people always respond over the holidays.

January, he continued, is the month that those at the Y catch their breaths and gear up for February. That’s when the YMCA launches its annual fundraising campaign that also will include registration for the group’s large day camp program.

While other not-for-profits often begin their big fundraising in the fall, this winter campaign “has worked well for us in the past,” he said. “People expect it.”

Whether you can volunteer on a schedule or give an occasional hour or so, your help is always welcome at local pantries to unload, sort and distribute food. Lake said there’s even a need for specialized services such as marketing or finance.

At Hesed House, volunteers are needed for overnight shifts in the PADS shelter and Transitional Living Community. There is also a need for volunteers on “open nights,” said Cobb, where there’s no church or organization to prepare and serve food.

Bottom line: These not-for-profits are spreading donations and volunteers as thin as the peanut butter that becomes a hot commodity this time of year.

Renner recalled with appreciation a West Aurora High School dean who showed up Monday on Martin Luther King Day and simply asked what she could do to help. When she was told there was a shortage of spaghetti sauce and canned fruit, she left and returned a short time later with her trunk filled with these grocery items.

“A lot of people just think of us once,” said Renner. “But remember, the need is there year-round.”

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