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Holiday aid groups feel pinch this year

Organizations seek help to make season bright amid pandemic, shortages

Sheetz employees take donated funds and shop for kids in need. Courtesy photo

Local organizations whose mission it is to help individuals and families in need during the holidays are facing their fair share of challenges as the COVID-19 pandemic continues and supply chain shortages linger.

Despite these concerns, organizations such as Toys for Tots, Sheetz for the Kidz and the Salvation Army are hopeful local residents will dig deep to help out their neighbors this holiday season.

The tall, white cardboard boxes with the red silhouette of a train on the side have been popping up in business lobbies and vestibules in recent weeks.

The boxes are a symbol of the U.S. Marine Corps Toys for Tots campaign, an outreach that began in the late 1940s and has since grown into an international program.

According to its website, the initiative distributes on average 18 million toys a year to less fortunate children.

While the toy collection continues through November, parents or legal guardians of children in need have only through Nov. 15 to sign up children ages 1-17. Gift distribution starts in mid-December, according to the Toys 4 Tots Ebensburg PA Facebook page.

Staff Sgt. Matthew Pizarro, Toys for Tots assistant coordinator at the Ebensburg Reserve Center, said the Marines aim to give “every child a little Christmas.”

Pizarro said the group relies on the community for toy and monetary donations to aid in the mission to give children gifts who might otherwise not receive anything for Christmas.

Donations are accepted in-person, online and at local businesses that host collection boxes.

Despite the pandemic, Pizarro said last year’s campaign was a success as the community came together to meet the needs with both donations and volunteers. He expects the same this year.

“We have confidence in the community participating and coming together,” Pizarro said. “The community is bouncing back.”

‘It takes a village’

Local businesses including Courtesy Ford and Servello Orthodontics will continue to collect toys this year for the Marines program and hope to surpass last year’s collection, which though good, was down due to COVID-19.

Abigail Orchard of Courtesy Ford said the dealership has participated as an official drop-off location for more than 10 years.

“We are always looking for ways to give back to the community,” she said in an email. “Last year was challenging because foot traffic was low due to COVID-19.”

Orchard said the dealership was still able to collect multiple boxes worth of toys and are hoping to collect even more this year.

Angela Servello, of Servello Orthodontics, noted a similar experience during the 2020 collection period.

“Last year, we did not have as much participation, and I feel it was due mostly to the fact that our waiting room and office was open to patients only, so parents were not coming in and seeing the drop box and posters like the previous year,” Servello said. “We love participating in this program because it gives kids a chance to experience the joy of Christmas that may not otherwise have that opportunity.”

Giving children the opportunity to have “a little Christmas” is a shared mission of local gift-buyer, Vickie Prijatelj. Prijatelj is an avid supporter of the initiative, setting aside money throughout the year to use for Toys 4 Tots gift shopping.

“I moved here (a few years ago), it’s now my community and I want to help make it better,” she said. “Everyone deserves to feel good at Christmas.”

Prijatelj is able to help the Marines in their mission while also honoring her brother-in-law, a Marine Corps veteran. She encourages all community members to find a cause in which they are passionate, and to invest in bettering the community.

“We all need to look out for each other,” she said. “It takes a village.”

Sheetz employees, customers unite

A donation, a split-second decision to throw one’s loose change into a collection jar or to round up a purchase for a charity can make a lasting difference in the lives of children.

Sheetz for the Kidz is an annual holiday program started by Sheetz employees in 1992 to help children in the local communities in which Sheetz stores are located.

Brittany Funcheon, Sheetz for the Kidz executive director, said the program provides toys and basic needs for children identified through the organization’s partnership with the Salvation Army.

The process begins when Sheetz stores and corporate locations select 16 children in their local area. Sheetz for the Kidz partners with the Salvation Army, which aids in the selection and communicates with the child’s family to create individualized wish lists based on the needs of the child.

Then employees, customers and vendors support the employee-led program throughout the year. The raised funds are used by employee-shopper volunteers who take the wish lists and shop specifically for each child.

“It’s like a customized shopping experience for them,” Funcheon said.

When asked how the 2020 donation campaign compared to previous years, Funcheon said Sheetz for the Kidz saw an increase in community generosity in donations raised.

Funcheon said each store is responsible for working together with their district, seeking out employee volunteers to do shopping and attend drive-thru distributions.

“We definitely have many employees who get excited and look forward to participating in this program every year,” she said.

Sheetz stores host campaigns twice a year, in July and December, where customers can support the program through donations at the registers.

Donations hit a record-high in July 2020, with the July 2021 period coming in as second highest.

“The generosity from our customers and community was outstanding,” Funcheon said.

Customers can also donate throughout the year in the Sheetz app, online at SheetzForTheKids.Org, by shopping through Amazon Smile and by purchasing Sheetz for the Kidz water bottles in stores.

The campaign leads up to a much-anticipated event for employees and donation recipients — a party where gifts are delivered and the employees get to see the excitement on the children’s faces. Santa Claus has even taken the time amid his busiest time of year to visit with the children and their families.

But again, due to COVID-19, the party had to be reimagined. Sheetz for the Kidz adapted to follow social distancing measures, so the previously held in-person parties have turned to drive-thru events.

Employees will deliver the gifts and wrapping supplies to the parent’s or guardian’s vehicle instead. Funcheon said Sheetz will be hosting 200 drive-thru gift distributions in December, benefiting nearly 11,000 children throughout its coverage area.

Community at heart of Salvation Army

While ringing bells and red kettles are symbols synonymous with the Salvation Army the organization also reaches out to children in need through its annual Angel Tree program.

There are 332 children signed up for the program this year, said local Salvation Army Captain and Lead Pastor Ashley Fulmer.

“Each child is looking forward to a joyful Christmas morning, and the community can be part of that by donating brand new toys to The Salvation Army,” she added.

The Angel Trees can be found in local retail stores, including Walmart, Sam’s Club and Boscov’s.

Angel Trees use tags as decorations, with each coded tag including a child’s age, sizes, requested toys and other items. Community members take the tags, buy the presents and bring the tags and unwrapped gifts back to the tree location. The gifts are then distributed for Christmas.

Fulmer said the community stepped up even during the pandemic last year to aid the children and help the organization provide other needed services.

When asked how the pandemic impacted the organization’s operations, Fulmer said the need for services has been growing over the last 18 months.

“We have more requests for assistance than we have the funding for and the holiday season is no different. We are dependent on the community to help bear the needs and lighten the load of the households in our community,” she said. “We’ve learned within the last 18 months that organizations/churches can’t do it alone. We definitely need the support and awareness of the community.”

She said there is a greater need for financial assistance due to the pandemic, and that different avenues of services are utilized more than others.

“The Salvation Army is the lead agency for the state funded food program. We provide 13 pantries throughout Blair County with food, Fulmer said. While the organization has seen a decrease in the number of people seeking food, there has been a significant increase in individuals and households needing assistance with utilities and rent.

Fulmer said the annual Kettle campaign will kick off Nov. 15 with a little help from the Altoona Fire Department at a drive-by event at Seventh Street and Sixth Avenue. Retail locations will be limited until Black Friday, Nov. 26.

Fulmer said the organization hopes to raise $110,000 in donations.

There are opportunities for individuals and groups to volunteer or work as bell ringers, with locations all over Altoona and surrounding communities.

Fulmer said all funds raised stay in Altoona, benefiting the food and hygiene pantries, financial assistance and other community needs and programs.

While the organization needs financial donations, it also needs volunteers who can donate their time, she said.

Fulmer said individuals and groups, especially those who need community service hours, can volunteer by bell ringing and gift wrapping. Gift wrapping is available by donation at the Logan Valley Mall (near the Food Court) from Dec. 1-24.

“We believe going forward that we will continue to be blessed by the community’s generosity as we enter the holiday season,” Fulmer said.

Dates to remember

Project Bundle Up: The Salvation Army, in partnership with WTAE, will be able to provide children and seniors with a shopping experience to purchase brand new winter items. There is currently availability for senior citizens (65+). Interested seniors should contact Capt. Ashley Fulmer at 814-942-8104 by Nov. 5.

Salvation Army Kettle Kick Off: The Salvation Army and Altoona Fire Department will partner together to raise funds at the drive-by event at Seventh Street and Sixth Avenue on Nov. 15. Kettle and bell ringer retail locations are limited until Black Friday.

Salvation Army Gift Wrapping: Gift wrapping is available by donation Dec. 1-24 at the Logan Valley Mall. Volunteers are still needed to fill the calendar.

Sheetz for the Kidz: Customers will be able to donate to Sheetz for the Kidz throughout December, by donating at cash registers, online or through the Sheetz App and through purchases of Sheetz for the Kidz bottled waters.

Ebensburg Marines Toys for Tots child signup deadline:

Parents or legal guardians can sign up their children (ages 1-17) for gifts online through Nov. 15. Gift pickups will begin in mid-December. Upon pickup, parents must provide identification, proof of assistance, a birth certificate or Social Security card for the receiving child and proof of address.

Toys for Tots donation deadline: Drop-off locations are listed on the Ebensburg Marines’ website. Different locations may have different start and end dates. The Altoona Mirror is collecting toys now through Nov. 30.

Salvation Army Christmas Sunday: The Salvation Army Kid’s Ministries will present a play at 10 a.m. Christmas Sunday, Dec. 26.

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