IT TAKES DEDICATED volunteers and an assembly line to offload the thousands of pounds of food the Kuzma Care Cottage purchases and distributes to the community's less fortunate families each month. A delivery from the Northern Illinois Food Bank Monday gave the guys 9,000 pounds of non-perishable food and frozen meat to work on.
IT TAKES TEAMWORK to move a pallet full of groceries, and a community to support the efforts of the local food pantry.
CHA is about holiday help
The Christian Help Association (CHA) is actually a subcommittee of the Kuzma Care Cottage, explains chairman Mary Ellen Ragain. She can't imagine a Christmas without the CHA.
The difference between the two is that Kuzma serves the community's less fortunate every day, and the CHA does what it does during the holiday season. The CHA will be providing for 457 families this year; some 1,400 individuals.
Those numbers seem to edge up every year. Overall, food banks have seen an increase in the number of people served of 35 percent to 40 percent, reported Ragain.
"I've had people come and say, 'well I used to donate to your Christmas, and now I need to come and get food,'" she said.
CHA provides the ingredients for a Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner, as well as three gifts for each less fortunate child served. CHA also distributes coats, gloves, hats, scarves and toiletries - much of which is collected in drives like the coat drive being held right now by Grundy Bank.
The community also provides the children's gifts that are distributed with the Christmas care packages. Christmas trees decorated with gift tags bearing the age and gender of a child could appear as early as this weekend. Members of the community who are able to give are asked to pick up a tag and provide a gift appropriate to the child listed on it. The gifts are due to be returned to the business where the tag was obtained by Sunday, Dec. 9.
The single biggest fundraising drive for the CHA is the Chamber of Commerce elf contest, in which every cent added to the elf boxes in local stores counts as a vote for the elf pictured on the box. However, the in-kind effort - the donations of toys, coats, hats and gloves - is just as valuable.
"The churches give, individuals give and the businesses give. Just about the whole town gives," Ragain commented.
The community will be invited to help pack bags of food for the families whose Christmas will be a little brighter due to the effort of the CHA. Packing will be held Friday, Dec. 14, at 6:30 p.m. at St. Rose School, a new location this year. Distribution of the food and gifts will take place Dec. 15.
"It's tough enough doing it all year around," said Kuzma cottage director Heather Hobbs. "But the extras, the churches coming together and the community coming to pack the food, is neat."
On a chilly Monday morning, 15 men moved 9,000 pounds of food from a semi truck to a storage facility at the rear of the Kuzma Care Cottage food pantry in Wilmington. It was a bit larger than the normal deliveries the cottage receives twice each month from the Northern Illinois Food Bank.
November is a time for giving thanks, but taking the extra step to help give someone else a reason to be thankful is what a cordon of volunteers at the cottage, with the support of the community, does every month of the year. With the holidays and cold winter months approaching, their workload is bigger and more important than ever. The food pantry, and its offshoot the Christian Help Association (CHA), are gearing up for the holidays and could use some extra consideration.
Kuzma Care Cottage was founded by Sister Ann Ellen Quirk in 1984 as a ministry of St. Rose Catholic Church. The good sister saw a need in the community, and started the effort in her music classroom at St. Rose School. Before long, she was given the key to the little house at the corner of South Main and Laurel Street, and it became the food pantry, named in honor of Father George Kuzma.
The pantry serves people in the 60481 zip code, including residents of Custer Park and Symerton, who fall within the poverty guidelines established by the Illinois Department of Human Services. An individual earning less than $1,722 monthly qualifies for assistance, as does a family of four with a monthly income of less than $3,554.
The food provided to each client during their monthly visit is intended only as a supplement.
"It's really a means to help them get by a few extra days a month. A typical family, it would probably last four to five days," said Kuzma Care Cottage director Heather Hobbs.
On average, the cottage provides groceries for 280 families per month. It served a record 333 families in October, which means the usual twice-weekly shelf stocking may need to be done more frequently, and some supplies become thin.
"We've been having to order more," Hobbs said. "We need the food to keep the shelves stocked, so we've been having to spend a little more."
There are also items the Northern Illinois Food Bank, which the cottage partners with for the purchase of groceries, has trouble obtaining.
"Frozen meat isn't as readily available to us from the food bank, because their supply chains are running a little short," Hobbs said. In the past, the cottage typically supplied a family with three to four pounds of meat per person. Now they're only getting three to four pounds per family. Monday's shipment included many cases of ground chicken, because that's pretty much all that was available.
"We're trying to make do, keep the protein there," she explained.
Chain grocers are contracting their extra baked goods and meats to local food pantries, instead of the regional food bank.
"We can purchase meat, it's just a lot more expensive. For what we spent on meat before, we're probably getting 30 percent, for the same dollar amount," Hobbs notes. "It's been an adjustment for all of us because we've been so lucky to be able to have it for quite a while."
For a couple of days last week, the cottage ran out of instant potatoes - the food bank couldn't get them, and the whole country was having a problem keeping instant potatoes in stock. And someone from the community came into the cottage with 20 bags of fresh potatoes.
"It always works out somehow. When we started to panic about the meat, someone brought in a whole cooler of ground beef.
"Sister says the Lord always provides, and he does. You just get worried when that's going to happen," she said.
An increase in the numbers served is typical in autumn, when families start signing up for holiday distributions that are part of the CHA project. The impact of the economy also comes into play - some families have given up their means of transportation in order to keep a roof over their head, making it even harder to get to work, if they were able to find a job.
"It's getting harder for them to get out of their hole," Hobbs commented. There has also been an increase in the number of single mothers seeking assistance, she added.
Kuzma started a backpack program through the NIFB. It is in addition to the Mothers of Preschoolers backpack program. Both programs ensure that children receiving free or reduced-price lunches are provided sustenance over the weekend when they're not in school.
Kuzma Care Cottage is supported by donations from area churches and gifts made in memorium, and an occasional anonymous donation directly to NIFB. Although the cottage works in tandem with the CHA, it does not share funds, and its distributions are not reduced by the CHA holiday effort. The local schools and Scouts hold food drives, generally in November, which also helps keep the shelves stocked during the holiday months, and makes it possible for the cottage to put together dinner baskets for those who weren't able to be put on the CHA's list.
Donations can be made to Kuzma Care Cottage at 635 S. Main St. Individuals wanting to help with donations of non-perishable food items, including paper products, soap, canned tuna, peanut butter and jelly, rice, noodles, crackers, fruit, snacks or other packaged goods, can bring them to the cottage Monday through Friday, from 9 to 11 a.m. or 1 to 3 p.m. Fresh or frozen meats are also accepted during business hours, or special arrangements can be made.
"We appreciate any help we can get," Hobbs said.
The Kuzma Care Cottage turns away nobody in need.
"We always have resources so we can make sure no one goes without," she concluded.