Faith Groups Unite for Those in Need

Faith Groups Unite for Those in Need

Local interfaith charities offer chance for less fortunate to fill cupboards and stomachs.

Chicken noodle soup, tuna fish, rice, canned meats, spaghetti sauce, Hamburger Helper, peanut butter, canned milk, apple sauce, jelly, macaroni and cheese.

Sounds more like the contents of a kitchen cupboard than the basement of a church.

Yet thanks to 14 churches from Herndon, Sterling and Ashburn — Dec. 18 — the basement of Christ the Redeemer Church in Sterling will look more like a supermarket than anything else.

LINK, a non-profit organization comprised of churches from all denominations, has dedicated the last 32 years to helping families in need through home food deliveries and its Holiday Baskets program which allows families to "shop" for food, winter coats and gifts in a church basement.

"We'll open up the cupboards and say we have nothing, but we have a lot," said Roberta Bruckschen, LINK volunteer, adding the families LINK assists really have no food in their cupboards because they can't afford it.

The group — comprised entirely of volunteers — fills the basements of three churches for two days around Thanksgiving and Christmas each year with non-perishable foods, winter coats and gifts, to better equip the area's families in need for the winter months and holiday season.

As a part of their mission Bruckschen said that, while the group continues its weekly food deliveries, around September they begin preparing for their Holiday Baskets program.

"It's challenging at this time of the year making sure everybody is registered and able to get help for the holidays," she said, adding the demand has increased. "Reston Interfaith had 250 to 300 families register for assistance, [reaching capacity] and closed two weeks after they opened."

ACCORDING TO LINK, from September 2002 to October 2004, 43 percent of the weekly food deliveries went to homes in Herndon, or 954 households, 39 percent went to homes in Sterling, or 849 houses, and nine percent went to homes in Ashburn and nine percent went to homes in Reston.

"We're expecting about 350 to 400 families this year that can come from as far out as Lincoln and Purcellville," said Bruckschen of the Thanksgiving event. "We try not to turn anyone away — we even have people from Centreville — we ask no questions, they call us and ask for help."

Over the last few years more families have come forward needing assistance — through the Holiday Baskets program or the weekly deliveries — but Bruckschen added the group couldn't always help them all.

"It took us a long time to get started," she said the first years after 1972. "We were feeding maybe one family a day, or about two to three [families] a week. Now we try not to overextend ourselves, but we pack for at least four families a day and if we can handle it we try for six."

In 2000 the group was the recipient of the Congressional Victory Against Hunger Award given by U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf for its community food distribution, which Bruckschen said they now deliver to about 60 to 80 families and elderly a month.

But, for the Holiday Baskets program, Bruckschen said they can reach more families because they register for a 15-minute time slot to shop for two weeks worth of food.

"They're very, very gracious," she said about the families they help. "Last year there was a grandmother from Purcellville that came through with her four grandchildren and she had nothing. Here we say we have nothing, but she really had nothing."

MARK GUNDERMAN, LINK board member, said the group was able to service 672 families, or 3,193 people — children included — last year, with about a two to three percent no show rate, and expects more this year.

"Not only have we doubled [in families] since 1998 ... the need really is greater," he said.

Gunderman explained LINK is comprised of churches that although historically may not agree in all aspects of religion, for this cause work together.

"We have a representative from every church on the board, we may not do [religion] the same way, but when it comes to this we all agree," he said, adding it's important to help the less fortunate. "I'm trying to make it a unifying environment — I believe this is how you unify a community."

In addition to the churches, groups like Food Source Foundation, founded by eastern Loudoun County resident, Mukit Hossain, also contribute to the program.

"Fairfax County is one of the most neglected food charity areas anywhere," said Hossain, adding he created the Foundation three years ago to make sure the hungry were not forgotten when most money was going to Sept. 11, 2001 charities.

"During the holidays season we tend to get wrapped up in holiday-related things and we tend to forget those who need our help," he said, adding the area's Muslim community adds extra assistance around the Christian holidays to cover the slack. "We need to remember what the holidays are about — they're about feeling a sense of joy."

Gunderman said LINK is successful because of volunteer groups like Hossain's, Reston Interfaith and organizations like the Northern Virginia Family Services and Loudoun County Department of Social Services that offer financial assistance.

"As a community, it shows the county that we don't have to totally rely on the government to get this done," he said. "We have shown that LINK can do it's share — if only we had LINKs in separate parts of other counties we'd do a much better job."

Gunderman explained the Holiday Baskets' "shopping."

"We decided, let's give them some dignity, let them choose the food they want," he said, explaining it's hard enough for families to ask for help.

Now, families show up between 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and are taken through the basement by a volunteer to make sure their needs are met.

"We had 40 walk-in families this year," said Gunderman about how popular the program has become, adding the families average five people.

Although the group has about 500 volunteers assisting, with roughly half of them high school students, Gunderman said it is still a tedious process.

"All those people have to be registered, it takes a lot of people to do that," he said, explaining volunteers also set out food and prepare gifts. "It's not a bag of toys we're giving them, every family chooses what toys they get."

DURING THE DEC. 18 Holiday Baskets program this year, Christ the Redeemer Church is scheduled to hold the grocery distribution because of its large basement, and the Herndon United Methodist Church is scheduled to be the toy distribution location.

Gunderman said in addition to giving non-perishable foods, they also give grocery store gift certificates.

"Last year we gave away $15,000 in grocery gift certificates," he said, adding through donations and grants they are able to do that with their limited funds. "We have tremendous support, we have trucks offered for deliveries and then we go to the schools because they will do fund-raisers for us."

Bruckschen said as food coordinator she contacts the schools and Boy and Girl Scouts for help with food drives to contribute to the program.

She added the group also asks the high schools for volunteers.

"A lot of young people have come out in the past and it's amazing how many of the youth are coming out to help now," she said. "We have [Boy and Girl] Scouts that come out too, they're young — like 8 and 9 years old — and it's good that they can realize what is happening."

Gunderman said he believes it's important everyone remembers those needing assistance are not always the "low-income" families, and are neighbors, regardless of their income, race or religion.

"A lot of people aren't used to seeing diversity in their community, but it's there," he said, adding with recent lay-offs, more people need assistance. "This year you're going to see 'middle-class' people in there."

BRUCKSCHEN SAID her role of registering families allows her to talk with them adding about 80 percent of the 200 people she spoke to were single mothers who had, on average, four children.

"Some register because they just don't have enough food stamps for their families," she said, adding with many families a child has to translate because the parents do not speak English.

"I'll have young kids that give me the information," she said. "Their parents know enough to call and ask for help and when I call back the children act as a translator — that's a lot to ask of little 8 to 10 year olds."

Gunderman said the group now has 12 foreign language translators ready to speak foreign languages from Spanish to Farsi.

"We don't keep track of race, but our Hispanic population has grown dramatically in need," he said. "I'd say almost 50 percent of those we serve are Hispanic."

He added, although the food portion of the Holiday Baskets program has been a success, so has the winter coat distribution and toys.

"We gave out 350 winter coats and sweaters in six hours last year," he said, adding that only served about 100 families. "That just shows you — that's a good census of how high the demand is ... these aren't made up numbers."

Gunderman said the group is always looking for volunteers, food donations or money donations.

"It's very rewarding to help and anyone who has time to come out and help give us a call," said Bruckschen of the experience.

Bruckschen said after the winter Holiday Baskets program, the remaining food will be distributed during the spring Holiday Baskets program, reminding that families are in need year round, not just over the holidays.

"It's one thing to look in the cupboards and say there's nothing to eat," she said tearing up, "but for them it's a reality — that's a big eye-opener for us."