A Hot Meal and Warm Home for the Holidays
Volunteers and community donations help fight hunger and homelessness
Writer: Conni Leigh James | Winter 2021 | Coverphoto: Arnold House volunteers Tiffany Rivera and Enoch Bevel helping in the kitchen. The organization offers a food pantry four days weekly and a community dinner weekly to help underserved communities.
The holiday season has descended on Southern Maryland in full force, complete with festive parties, shopping trips, and warm family gatherings around food-laden tables. But for some area residents, those who lack even the most basic necessities – warm clothes, food, heat, and even a place to live – this omnipresent holiday cheer is subdued by hunger and homelessness.
Charities throughout the region often step up their services as the season unfolds. Shoppers toss cash into one of the Salvation Army’s famous red kettles; neighbors put gifts under a needy child’s tree via the Marines’ Toys for Tots campaign. The Red Cross, United Way and Catholic Charities offer help. But there are also networks of lesser-known local charities scattered throughout the area that can offer a more personal, thoughtful or creative way to volunteer or donate.
Giving back is a HeartF.E.L.T. holiday tradition
HeartF.E.L.T. stands for “filling empty little tummies,” and volunteers do that every week by sending backpacks filled with food home with children from area middle and elementary schools in need of meals on the weekends when free school lunches are not available. Program volunteers coordinate with school counselors to identify those most in need.
Centered mainly in Calvert County, HeartF.E.L.T. accepts donations of money and food through a network of 17 local churches, and volunteers stuff backpacks each Friday. Children are sent home with about seven pounds of meals and snacks, (sometimes extra if there are non-school-aged children at home who are hungry) and return the empty backpack to school on Monday.
“We started with one church serving one elementary school in the spring of 2013, and it has grown to where we are serving students in every elementary and middle school in Calvert County,” said Jack Woodford, who started the program shortly after retiring in 2012.
While food donations are welcome, “monetary donations have the most impact because they make it possible to buy food in bulk,” said Woodford. They partner with programs like End Hunger to help stretch buying dollars.
Sometimes, large donations of food or money come from community organizations or local businesses organizing a food drive or a fundraising event. “We received 1,000 pounds of food from the Girl Scouts, that went out to all the food pantries in the churches,” said Woodford.
The recent Covid pandemic impacted HeartF.E.L.T. in several ways. The program was basically on hiatus during the 2020-21 school year while students learned from home, and is slowly gearing back up for this year. The pandemic also prompted the creation of several similar, government-funded “weekend” projects once students returned to the classroom, but it’s not clear if those programs will survive long term.
Filling hungry tummies makes for healthier students, but the benefits go beyond that. “The schools have seen improvement in the students’ attendance, grades, and attitudes,” said Woodford.
Woodford was himself a recipient of community generosity as a child, when his father suffered a stroke and was unable to provide for his family when Woodford was four-years old.
“A lot of people helped us anonymously. I knew I could never thank them all,” said Woodford. “God gave me a vision to pay forward some of what I received when I was a child who was in great need. He told me to help the children that are hungry.”
How can you help? Monetary donations are most welcome and can be made to the churches involved in the program (listed on the program’s website). Donations of food can be made directly to the churches as well.
The Arnold House – providing a hot meal and a helping hand
Another unsung Southern Maryland charity bringing holiday joy to families in need is the Arnold House in Charles County. The volunteer-based organization provides food and hygiene items to those in need, and works with county leaders and business owners to advocate for undeserved communities.
Volunteers and staff operate a food pantry four mornings a week, and host a community dinner every Wednesday at the Metropolitan United Methodist Church in Bryans’ Road.
“We do whatever it takes to help,” said Clarence Arnold, vice president and co-founder of the Arnold House. “If there is a language barrier, we reach out to someone who can translate. If a family needs clothing or furniture, while that’s not what we do, we reach out to the community to see who can help.”
“For our weekly community dinner, especially pre-COVID, guests came in and were seated restaurant-style and we served them,” said Arnold. “While waiting, we sit and talk with the people and bond with them.”
Covid caused some changes in the organization’s practices. For example, guests can now request the weekly dinner in “to go” boxes brought to their cars. The number of volunteers dropped significantly because of the pandemic, but Arnold says things are slowly getting back to normal.
“We work to break down barriers and to take away the stigma people may have when asking for or receiving help. We build a stronger community by making the ‘invisible people’ visible,” said Arnold.
How can you help? Monetary donations are most needed, but the organization also welcomes donations of personal hygiene items like socks, gloves, hats, and hand warmers. Volunteers are needed to work in the Ladles of Love soup kitchen and help with preparing food boxes, and individuals with trucks who can pick up food and bring to the pantry for distribution are needed as well.
Three Oaks Center – A home for every season
Three Oaks Center, based primarily in St. Mary’s County, provides emergency shelter, permanent supportive housing, and veterans’ services to those who are homeless, disabled children and adults, individuals fleeing domestic violence, and others. The center opened in 1996 to provide shelter to homeless men in the area and expanded two years later to serve women and families as well. In 2003, the center purchased and renovated 10 substandard townhouses and turned them into transitional housing for families.
While the homes themselves are largely grant-funded, the center strives to be sure that those moving into emergency placements or permanent housing have essential personal items and food.
Fundraisers like an annual golf tournament or a recent online purse auction provide funds for necessities that grants do not cover, as do community donations. The center often receives calls from those wishing to donate appliances after a renovation, or the contents of a household when a relative has died, for example. While the center doesn’t store large items, staff can often connect those donating directly with a newly-housed client who needs those items.
“The level of need has risen greatly because of Covid,” said Sasha Seenath, the chief operations officer at the center. “We are seeing higher numbers of elderly veterans needing assistance. We are seeing more families facing evictions.”
Monetary donations are so important to covering what the grants do not. But there are other ways to donate. Residents can “adopt” a family for the holidays, gifting a particular family with presents, a holiday meal, or items for their new home.
Many also donate “welcome home” gift baskets filled with essential household items. Many homeless families and homeless veterans do not have these basic things, having lived in their car or outdoors, so these are especially valued when a homeless person or family becomes housed.
“In some ways, the baskets are the most appreciated,” said Seenath. “Even filled with just simple things like towels and toiletries. Someone who basically had nothing before can say, ‘This is mine!’
“Our community and staff are overwhelmingly loving. They genuinely want to see people thrive.”
How can you help? The center often needs volunteers for administrative duties, front desk, phone and pantry services. Food donations of non-perishable and perishable food are always needed and used for the shelters. Monetary donations can be donated via the center’s website, mailed, or dropped off at the main office. •