CLOVER -- Some worry about filling stockings this time of year. But Dona Van Leer thinks of stocking shelves, filling them with enough food to keep a community on its feet during the holidays.
"It's a different world than what we were dealing with," said the Clover Area Assistance Center operations manager.
The struggling economy is no secret, nor is the idea that charitable groups suffer when donations dip and demand grows. The Clover Area Assistance Center is no different, but what is different this holiday season is the type of people coming for assistance.
"This economy is bringing in a whole new set of people who are not used to being there," said Leah Nordmark, president of the CAAC board of directors.
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Like the couple who worked in banking before both were laid off the same day. Or like many of the families with regular jobs hit hard by economic downturn, people who never imagined they might need the kind of help they now do.
"They don't even know where to start asking for help," Van Leer said.
Fortunately for almost 1,800 families in the Clover School District boundaries, there is a place.
What is CAAC ?
Though established as a nonprofit less than a decade ago, CAAC grows from deep roots. The coming year marks the 30th anniversary of the former Clover Caring Center, which joined the Good Neighbor Pantry in 1999 to form the current group. The caring center began as a mission of River Hills Community Church, while the River Hills Lions Club founded the pantry.
"Our mission is to keep people in their houses," said Lake Wylie resident Janie Davis, executive director.
The center supports 1,797 families with programs for food, financial assistance, winter coats, school supplies and life skills training. Also offered are free medical and dental care thanks to three local doctors who donate services. Anyone at 150 percent of the poverty level with proof of Clover School District residence can receive enough food for four to five days once monthly. Open three days each week, the center sees 30 to 50 people every time the doors unlock. Most of the volunteers -- 120 in all -- come from Lake Wylie, Davis said.
Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina, which provides food to 650 member agencies in 19 counties surrounding Charlotte including CAAC, sees more need in York County than any other besides Mecklenburg, said executive director Kay Carter. More than 40 York County agencies receive Second Harvest food, and CAAC is one of the largest.
With the recent economic downturn, agencies are seeing need increases of 30 percent or more.
"It's just the cumulative effect of all of that," Carter said. "The people they're seeing are people they've never seen before."
As hunger pains grow throughout the Carolinas, food only spreads so far. CAAC receives four boxes of meat and 10 boxes of canned or dry goods from Second Harvest each week.
"We go through 10 boxes in the first 15 minutes we're open," Van Leer said. "The shelves empty really quickly in a day."
Then there is the family with two teenage boys. That family, like other families, receives only the government recommended allowances.
"You cannot feed one more than the other," Van Leer said.
So far, CAAC is able to provide food without help from outside sources, thanks to the community. In November, CAAC received 15,000 pounds of food from Crowders Creek and Clover middle schools, Clover High School, three local Cub Scout troops and a Boy Scout troop. Even the local Bi-Lo helps with meat, often re-packaged for CAAC at no cost.
Duke Energy and York Electric Cooperative help, too, as do a group of pastors who began a Good Samaritan Fund this year for families with extra need. Almost 70 churches help CAAC. Still, the greatest help comes from individual giving.
"Once they get on board they tend to come back annually and help us," said Bob Morgan, Santa's Closet project coordinator.
Especially in Lake Wylie, Davis said, one or two people hearing about CAAC and helping makes a huge difference.
"When those few give, it spreads like wildfire," she said."River Hills, in itself, I can't even describe it."
Although the economy shows little promise, community support does, such as CAAC acting as grand marshal in Saturday's parade. Like the gentleman who brings his five grandchildren each year with $2,500 worth of toys for needy children. Like the countless volunteers doubling or tripling their service hours to keep up with need. Or clients who bring $100 or $200 gifts once they get back on their feet.
"This isn't a third world country far away. This is our community,"Davis said. "We have people everywhere we go telling us if we weren't here, this community would really suffer."
CAAC already is preparing for 2009, with needs expected to be "way up" even from this year. For more information, call 803-222-4837.