Like a traffic cop, the man in the orange hunting cap stood in the middle of the turnaround at St. Charles Community College. Moving like a dancer side to side, he shouted two numbers and pointed. The appropriate car moved to curb and stopped.
“Ridiculously good,” Doug Helfrich, the man with the loud voice and pointy fingers, said. “You did a great job.”
Other helpers arrived and the car’s trunk and rear doors were opened, ready to receive its cargo of boxes, which arrived on a shopping cart, some wrapped with colorful gift wrap. Forms were checked, gifts loaded, thank yous said and, sometimes, hugs given. Then, the car was off. The goal was five family vehicles loaded every three minutes.
It was now going on 2 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 11 and Helfrich and a group of volunteers – some from the Knights of Columbus at St. Joachim & Ann Catholic Church in St. Charles, some students and others – had been there for hours, performing the last act of an ongoing annual drama.
The delivery and dispersal required a careful choreography mastered after years of practice by Helfrich and other volunteers. Busting chops also was the order of the day, particularly among volunteers who had worked together for years.
Helfrich said the goal is safety and efficiency so that vehicles can get in and out.
“I just like yelling and screaming and making fun of people,” he said jokingly.
“He even kisses them [women picking up gifts] every once and a while,” said Sharon Spiek, who helps organize the Adopt-A-Family program and was listening nearby. “The year he did it everyone was like ‘what the heck!’ But it was his wife,” she laughed.
This was the day families arrived to pick up food, gifts and other items – including bicycles and sometimes Christmas trees – as part of the annual Sts. Joachim and Ann Care Service’s Adopt-A-Family for Christmas program.
The care service, a nonprofit agency that grew out of the parish in 1981, is now the largest social service provider in the county serving thousands of people in St. Charles, Warren and Lincolns counties.
The Adopt-A-Family program is the largest public event for the care service. This year, 501 families were adopted by people throughout the area. About 400 of those gifts were being picked up at the community college. About 100 seniors where having gifts, food and other items delivered. Other families, who didn’t make the deadline for the Adopt-A-family event, also will get help.
The care center worked with the St. Charles County Police and Sheriff’s departments who took 40 children shopping for toys, clothing and shoes on Dec. 13 at Kohl’s Department Store in O’Fallon.
Recognizing poverty in an affluent community
The need for volunteers like Helfrich and Spiek isn’t going away soon, though it’s hard for some county residents to recognize poverty as a major issue. Still among the fastest growing, highest income counties in Missouri, St. Charles County also has the lowest poverty rate – 6.8 percent of its population – than any county in Missouri. That’s according to statistics compiled by the Missouri Community Action Agency, a group representing community action agencies that track poverty.
John Lipin, executive director of the care service, said organizations now have more expertise in identifying poverty faster. But for many people living or moving to the county, Lipin said, “They don’t see it [poverty].”
Spiek’s mother, Yvonne Tihen, said recognizing poverty can involve opening eyes to the fact that some people don’t have enough money to pay the rent, a bed for a child, or have to choose between paying the heating bill or eating. She said the care service this year tightened restrictions on families applying for help – meaning eligible families have to make not more than 25 percent of the median income level. For a family of four that’s only $24,000.
“So instead of saying 50 percent of median income, we’re saying 25 percent of the median income because we wanted to reach the poorest of the poor,” Tihen said. “And we can tell on the forms by what they ask for.”
Spiek inputs the requests for help. “There were nights I was crying,” she said. “You think you’ve had a rough year and its nothing compared to what these people go through.”
There has been an increase in help sought by seniors. A few years ago, Tihen said she had 30 seniors request aid. This year, it was 100 – and the help being requested is basic.
“What I’m seeing in big letters is ‘NEED FOOD’ and I haven’t seen that before,” Tihen said. Many seniors are homebound and can’t get to a food pantry. Their food stamps and income also is limited.
“Our families, they’re one paycheck away from being on the street,” Tihen said. Sometimes doing without involves other necessities. Tihen said the care service budgeted $6,000 for children’s beds, because social workers found many sleeping on floors.
“We don’t have high rises where poor people live,” she said. “We have mobile home parks.” Rent may be cheaper, but utility costs are high. The parks also are where many single mothers and fathers live. “They’re stuck,” Tihen said. “They barely get out of one crisis and they get into another.”
People also ask for other items as well. This year there were 86 requests for artificial Christmas trees. Christmas decorations are among the first things to go when a house goes into foreclosure and personal items have to be placed in storage.
Sponsors are asked to give a gift card for food, three presents for each family member and a gift card for Christmas dinner.
The care service adds other donations such as bicycles, decorations, paper goods, bags of fruit and more to top out what sponsors have given. Shoppers are dispatched at midnight to provide items to fill out what sponsors may not have provided, because as Tihen says, “We want these families to have a nice Christmas.”
That nice Christmas means two bicycles for two little girls, said a woman waiting patiently as gifts and the bikes were loaded into her mini-van on Sunday afternoon. “They’re going to have no idea,” said their mother, who lives in Dardenne Prairie.
The parade of vehicles continued much of the afternoon. People picking up gifts were told to show up at certain times. Spiek said without the community college space, the care service might not be able to help as many people.
The battery of another mini-van went dead after it was loaded. It was soon jumped and started. “Don’t worry, it will be taken care of. There are a lot of men here that know what they are doing,” said a volunteer working with the woman in the mini-van. “Get this straight home, don’t stop.”
“Oh my God, this is amazing. I’m a widow and this is my first time I’ve been through here,” said another driver from O’Fallon. She said she is trying to help support her daughter. “I’ve never seen generosity like this.” Before she got in her van to drive away, she gave a big hug to Deaton Ellis, a St. Peters volunteer and Knights of Columbus member, who helped her load up.
“That was pretty good,” Ellis said, smiling.