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Area charity groups gear up to aid others
Organizations hoping for donations and volunteers
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Gainesville State College students Alexis Overstreet, right, and Alexandria Grubb sort through cans of food donated to the Georgia Mountain Food Bank Tuesday afternoon. Many of the cans of food were dropped off at the Flowery Branch Papa John’s location and also are from Wrigley’s.

Local organizations are starting up their annual charity events, hoping to get enough donations and volunteers to make it through yet another tough financial year.

With a still struggling economy, Home Instead Senior Care employees want to take care of local senior citizens who won't see family members during the holidays.

"Fewer people are traveling, and a lot of seniors in many different areas out here have families in other states. They may not have anyone visit them," said Andrew Williams, who coordinates Be a Santa to a Senior, a program that seeks donated Christmas presents for these seniors. "Because the economy is getting harder and harder and Social Security didn't go up again, seniors didn't get a cost of living increase and are pinching their pennies a lot tighter."

The program targets seniors who can't afford to buy necessary items to get through the holiday season.

"When you look at the requests for blankets and firewood, it brings tears to your eyes," Williams said. "It's stuff that is very humbling and simple everyday things we take for granted that they need."

Residents can pick up the gift requests from Christmas trees at the Gainesville, Oakwood and Flowery Branch Chick-fil-A locations. Shoppers can buy the items and leave them unwrapped at stores, where local Home Instead Senior Care volunteers will collect, wrap and distribute the gifts.

"The first year we received 150 gifts and last year we had 600," Williams said. "This year we hope for 1,000 and want to expand to 10 locations so we can reach all of the Northeast Georgia counties."

Charities of all kinds see an increased interest during the holiday season, especially food drives, said Kay Blackstock, executive director for the Georgia Mountain Food Bank. This year, companies and schools are pouring out support.

"The holidays is when we gather together in celebration, and food is usually a part of it. Typically this is triggered during giving season," she said. "This is the biggest year ever with the number of groups and generosity, and it's a huge asset to provide food and resources to our 32 feeding groups in five counties."

The overwhelming support is helping as the food pantries are seeing an unprecedented year of need.

"They're all saying that never before have they seen a time of need with record numbers of people," Blackstock said. "The thing we stress during holidays is that hunger doesn't take a holiday. Even after the holidays, we ask people to keep their enthusiasm and remain mindful to help when the supply is depleted."

It's also a good time to start up a new event. The Lanier Under the Lights 5K run will debut Saturday with more than 1,100 residents running to benefit the Marine Corps' Toys for Tots program and the Hamilton Mill Christian Church's Secret Santa Mission.

"After attending the Magical Nights of Lights over the years and starting to operate races, I wondered if we could do something here as a Christmas race," said Stephen Durling, the race director. "It's going to be a beautiful run, and hopefully the weather holds out."

Participants will run on the Magical Nights of Lights road course at the Lake Lanier Islands, which will open to the public on Nov. 21. Registration filled up several weeks ago, and Durling is thrilled to see what happens next year when he opens the race up to 1,500 participants.

Each runner is asked to donate an unwrapped toy for the event, with many going to local schools under the church's Secret Santa program. They also plan to send care packages to a church member serving in Afghanistan.

"We all have a soft place in our hearts for soldiers, and this is a challenging time to be from their families," Durling said. "We're also excited about having Santa Claus here before the race, and I'm going to dress up my little girls as elves. We have a huge dog that I may dress up to be a reindeer if he'll cooperate."

The holiday season also brings around tradition, such as the Samaritan's Purse Operation Christmas Child shoebox collection for children, Mayor's Motorcade for Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital patients and the Jaycees' Empty Stocking Fund for local children.

Residents can donate hygiene items to the Gainesville-Hall County Community Service Center to benefit the 52nd Mayor's Motorcade to help children and adults who are hospitalized during the holidays.

Volunteers also welcome adult clothing of all sizes, board games, hats, cosmetics and stationary.

Volunteers placed donation boxes at the city's four fire stations to help benefit behavioral patients at the Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital in Rome and AVITA Community Partners in Gainesville.

"We've been announcing the shoebox collection during the last couple of services to get it in everyone's heads," said Heather Risinger, who heads up the Samaritan's Purse event for Lakewood Baptist Church.

Church members and staff will receive shoebox donations between Nov. 15 and Nov. 22, which should include school supplies, small toys and hygiene items. The church collected 17,000 boxes last year and members hope to surpass 20,000 this year.

"You can always download the labels online and send it a box, but many people like to give through their churches or community groups so they're not sending the box into the unknown," Risinger said. "We have tables set up to show what the box looks like."

 

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