BERLIN – At least 2,000 Worcester County citizens will experience some holiday cheer this Christmas season that would not have been possible without local volunteers and non-profits.
“There are thousands who need assistance,” said Darlene Onley of Worcester County GOLD (Giving Other Lives Dignity).
Last year, Worcester County GOLD matched 312 families, totaling 931 people, with sponsors who donated holiday meals and gifts for the entire family.
“This year, we’re already up to 900 people. This year we’ve got down 283 families,” said Onley.
Worcester County GOLD also makes sure all the foster children in Worcester County have a good Christmas and brings Christmas cheer to vulnerable adults as well.
The Worcester County Sheriff’s Department’s Santa House offered gifts and meals to 1,000 people across the county last year, said Sgt. Ed Schreier, and expects just as many in 2007.
“Santa House collects food clothing and things to help needy families in the Worcester County area that need help for Christmas,” Schreir said. “We try to get things out to all the people on the list.”
Agape, a Christian ministry for single mothers in the Berlin vicinity, organized sponsors for 111 families, with 365 people, in 2006, director Leigh Sandifer said, and she’ll see at least as many this year.
These three groups are not the only ones to attempt to make Christmas a bit brighter for people in need. Local churches and many organizations, like the Ocean City Police Department, and Buckingham Elementary School, all work to provide food and gifts to families in need.
“I don’t even know the number of churches who are doing this kind of thing,” Onley said.
Sponsors come from all walks of life, from churches to individuals and businesses.
“We have a Cub Scout Troop, real estate offices, individual families,” Sandifer said. “I have one family who’s been doing it for five years and they’ve stopped buying gifts for each other.”
Worcester County GOLD Director Debbie Cole said, “It’s the community that does it. It’s the community that adopts families.”
Most sponsors want to help families in their immediate community, Cole said, but some will drive the length of the county to help a family out.
“We do get a lot of people from Ocean Pines who are willing to drive to Pocomoke and deliver,” Cole said. “It’s amazing, the good will.”
Worcester County GOLD boasts some sponsors who have been helping families at the holidays since the program’s inception in 1990, but there is always room for more volunteers.
“We never have enough sponsors. Every year we’re short of sponsors,” Onley said.
More sponsors come from the more populous, and more prosperous, north end of the county, and it is more difficult to find sponsors for families in the south end.
“Down in Pocomoke I have a stack of [family referrals] around three-quarter to an inch thick,” Onley said. “Every year we have a stack of people who did not get sponsors especially in the south of the county.”
That is where monetary donations come in, she said. Worcester County GOLD provides gift cards to families on their list who never get a sponsor
Agape could still use some help with its holiday program as well, Sandifer said.
Most of the families who benefit from the programs are the working poor, Onley said. Families are referred to the organizations and lists are cross-checked to be sure that no one is getting services from two organizations.
“Some families are just referred because they get food stamps, maybe they’re always a little short,” said Onley.
Others may be recently divorced or separated single parents or have unexpected medical or prescription bills. High gas prices, high utility bills, day care expenses and rental costs can prevent a family from having any funds for the holidays.
“We feel like part of our mission is to help people who fall through the cracks of the normal systems,” Cole said. “Electricity prices have tripled. That’s reflected in costs of food. It makes people on the margins have to dip further into their earnings and there’s very little left over.”
“There’s definitely a lot of need out there,” said Sandifer. “With the seasonal work and the housing it’s really, really a challenge.”
For some, a little help at the right time pays off in later dividends.
“We have people who receive from us come back three or four years later and be a sponsor,” Cole said.
Volunteers interested in donating for the holidays can call Worcester County GOLD at 410-677-6830 or Agape at 410-641-1011 or visit the website at www.agapeprojectinc.org; or call Dena Holloway at the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office at 410-632-1111.
“It’s a traditional time of giving. That’s why people do it,” said Cole. “Rather than focus on themselves, I think they really get a wonderful feeling by giving to others. Giving back is something people should do more of.”