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A bittersweet season

Volunteers help feed hungry during holidays, then disappear

Keely Valero, a volunteer with the Broad Street Ministry, and others help prepare dinner.
Keely Valero, a volunteer with the Broad Street Ministry, and others help prepare dinner.Read moreAARON WINDHORST / Staff Photographer

THIS IS the time of year when Laura Wall can send lots of help to the city's hundreds of food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters.

For a few weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Wall-the executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, an organization that matches volunteers with organizations that need donations-sees thousands of Philadelphians trying to combat the city's looming hunger problem.

These seasonal volunteers are excited to stand in line and donate their time with the "small percent" of regular volunteers.

And then, poof, they disappear.

"It's easy for folks to plug in during the holidays," Wall said. "People are thinking about those who are less fortunate. They have a heart for that. But these things don't end in the winter."

Organizations across the city that rely on volunteers to help feed the city's estimated 750,000 hungry will probably get help this holiday season-and then some.

During the holidays, many people are reminded of their good fortune and want to help those who have little to nothing, Wall said.

Also, some have more time off around the holidays which frees them up to volunteer.

Sadly, only a few of those who reach out during the holiday season will offer their time the rest of the year, said Derek Felton, the coalition's emergency food coordinator.

The organization tries to drum up support at other times of the year, through their website and by word of mouth, but "it doesn't work out like during the holidays," he said.

The Church of the Advocate, on Diamond Street near Gratz in North Philadelphia, feeds about 100 moms, dads, children and individuals every weekday at the church's Advocate Cafe with six or seven regular volunteers.

Usually on Thanksgiving Day, the start of this "volunteer season" people line up outside the building's ornate, red doors.

The church decided to put a cap on how many people would be able to donate their time and abilities this year, said Parish Administrator Lynne Buggage.

"To be in the situation where we have more volunteers than we need is just as unfortunate as when we don't have enough," Buggage said.

The Rev. Renee McKenzie said she noticed this trend in the four years she's served at the Advocate.

"We're always grateful for volunteers. I don't ever want to sound as if we're not," McKenzie said, sitting in her modest office in the heart of the historic church.

"The second year that I was here, I saw that we had this long line of people who were standing, just waiting to hand out food," McKenzie said. "For me, there was something wrong with that picture."

Many clients who frequent The Advocate Cafe live in the neighborhood and are the working poor, McKenzie explained.

"We're just trying to bring people resources, bring people food," McKenzie said.

Volunteers scatter just after Christmas and through the rest of winter, Wall explained. When the coldest weather hits, and people need help the most, they stop showing up.

Some families are in the unfortunate position where they have to decide, "Do we heat or do we eat?" Wall said.

"We have kids out on breaks whose families are probably relying on school meals to help out with the cost of food at home, and for a few weeks, they don't get that help," Wall said.

Broad Street Ministry on Broad Street near Pine did not host a Thanksgiving Day meal and doesn't plan on having a Christmas event either, said Jessica Paschke, the ministry's volunteer manager.

"We're looking for service gaps in the city, seeing what people need that they can't get at other organizations," Paschke said.

With about 8,000 volunteers a year, the ministry helps some 1,300 people a month with everything from food to health care.

When people ask to help on a holiday at the ministry, Paschke tells them to go home and spend time with their families.

"It's bittersweet. We're grateful, but our guests are equally hungry on a Monday, a Tuesday, next week, next month," Paschke said.

"You can give back any day of the year."

As Wall said: "People are hungry year-round. People need help year-round.

"Hunger doesn't end New Year's Day."


On Twitter: @By_paigegross