More families looking for help from charities this year

Jay Pateakos

It takes just a few minutes inside Operation Christmas coordinator Barbara Travis’s office to see that the need for help this year is as big as ever.

Assisting more than 42,000 in the region each year, Citizens for Citizens, along with the Salvation Army in Fall River, are avenues of hope for many who have little or no help elsewhere. Money raised from this year’s HN Holiday Fund will be split among the two entities.

Both longtime CFC Executive Director Mark Sullivan and Travis, who have been part of CFC for a combined 80 years, say this year is the worst they’ve ever seen.

“People come in here, they are at their worst,” said Travis. “What we do here is put Band-Aids on people’s problems. But over the last five months, you need tourniquets because these people are in so much trouble.”

One young mother who came into Travis’ office was looking to sign up her two children, 9 years old and 10 months old, for Christmas gifts from CFC’s Operation Christmas, the only gifts they’ll get this year. The woman, a single mother who has been unemployed for the last six months, began to weep in Travis’s office at the thought of having nothing to give for Christmas. She was seeking help for the first time.

Travis, 75, said she had this message for the woman: “Listen, you will turn this page. I was a single mom with eight kids and I was on welfare, too, and I got out. You will make it out of this too.”

Travis said families she has helped as far back as 30 years ago have made it out of the rut. She said some of them come back every year to volunteer, giving out the gifts for thousands of people who look to Operation Christmas for help.

On Tuesday, a couple in their early 40s came to the center for the first time. Travis said it’s something she sees a lot these days. People who never knew what CFC stood for are falling on hard times, forced to come into the “blue church” on Griffin Street to get fuel assistance, groceries and Christmas presents for their children.

Travis said the couple, who have an 9-year-old boy, is struggling because the husband was laid off and are now waiting the six to eight weeks for his unemployment benefits to kick in — well after Christmas has come and gone.

“First-time people are embarrassed to be here. They’re embarrassed to ask for assistance,” said Travis. “The problem with waiting for these unemployment benefits is that the longer it takes for these people to get them, the deeper and deeper the get.” 

While CFC’s Operation Christmas gave presents to more than 5,000 local children last year, Travis said that this year’s totals will be over 6,000.

And getting in touch with these people has proven difficult for Travis.

“People put their names down in October for this but say they forgot a social security number or something. I call their home to get the information and the number has already been disconnected,” said Travis. “I mean, I just saw them three weeks ago, but that’s what happens.”

Travis said with the increasing numbers of people she is seeing coming in for assistance this year, many of them, for the first time, are men who have no where else to turn.

“I’ve never seen so many men sitting in just that seat, never seen so many coming in for food. They tell me their story and they begin to cry,” said Travis. “They feel they have failed in providing for their family. But its not just them, it’s the whole community. There’s just no work. We have lines in here every day, all day, whether it’s for fuel assistance or for Christmas presents or something else, where you couldn’t tell where the line begins and where they end.”

E-mail Jay Pateakos atjpateakos@heraldnews.com.