Locals are forced to choose lights or rice, heat or meat

Volunteers, from left, Jack Ferguson, Lorraine Gaynor, the Rev. Horace White and James Smarr sort and stack donated food from customers of BI-LO in the pantry at Project Hope Monday.
Volunteers, from left, Jack Ferguson, Lorraine Gaynor, the Rev. Horace White and James Smarr sort and stack donated food from customers of BI-LO in the pantry at Project Hope Monday.

So many York County families with a couple of bucks got clothes or electronics for Christmas.

Thousands of kids in families without a few dollars opened toys, donated by terrific people willing to help somebody know Christmas is about giving.

Linda Mathis got a letter.

It was not from Santa Claus.

The letter had one word that knows no holiday. In big letters: "Disconnect."

Anybody who is broke knows "disconnect" is not some fancy term smarty-pants political types use to describe an inability to reach a voting group. It's what utility companies do to your electric when you can't pay the bill.

"It's hard right now and not just for me," Mathis said. "I just couldn't pay it."

So Monday morning, four days after Christmas, Mathis went to a house with the word "Hope" over the front door -- Project Hope at 411 Park Ave., a place where volunteers collect food and money just to give it away as fast as it comes in.

Mathis found more than 30 people had beat her to "Hope" on this Monday.

She walked onto the porch and later got a check for $40. It was made out to the electric company. On a desk waiting to be delivered to the actual utility companies Monday -- the name of the payee is stamped right on there, nobody who is broke gets cash money -- were a bunch of checks. Each person who got helped had a check with their name and utility company account number on it.

Then Mathis left to go try and fend off the darkness.

As she walked off she passed Creola McClanahan, who is 73. McClanahan's rent and light bill are monthly foes that always punch back. One of those checks inside had her name on it. But she stood on the porch because another door is the food door.

Bags filled with the food that can help a widow on Social Security make it through days after Christmas where the decision is lights or rice, heat or meat.

"It's rough out here," McClanahan said.

And these people named Mathis and McClanahan are not alone.

Bo Coleman, chairman of Project Hope for more than 30 years, said there is an increase in people needing help. More of them than ever are young. More than ever are parents of young children.

"The compassion and caring of this community is just wonderful, and I commend all," said Coleman. "So much food from grocery chains like Bi-Lo, and bakeries, and donations. But money, there just never seems to be enough for the need."

Similar answers Monday at Pilgrims' Inn, the Salvation Army, other places that feed the hungry and help with money after Christmas is gone and reality returns. Donations -- the money that means light, heat, survival -- are down.

"A loud cry for help," is what Beth Covington of the United Way called the current state of people in need. "And getting louder. What we have to do as a community is help."

A few first-timers at Project Hope told intake volunteers Monday a variation on that cry: "I never had to do this before -- ask somebody for anything."

"People need help whether it's a few days after Christmas or any day," said Agnes Carnes, one of the longtime Project Hope volunteers.

Because after Christmas has so many broke, other volunteers stuffed bags and boxes with food Monday. They helped those people lined up on the porch carrying their own "disconnect" notice or just carrying hunger.

Some of the people on that porch had little kids waiting in cars parked along the street, peering at that porch. Soon after, at Project Hope, food walked down the steps toward the car.

The new year approaches. It arrives, economically, a charging rhino blowing steam. Angry. Food pantries facing unprecedented demand. The word "disconnect" written on bills so often.

One word does not fade.

"Hope" on the sign that hangs over the door on Park Avenue.

Want to help?

No matter where you live, needy people need you. Here are some places in our communities that offer help and accept donations:

United Way of York County — 803-324-2735

Feed the Hungry Ministries — 803-417-3881

Pilgrims’ Inn — 236 W. Main St., Rock Hill, 803-327-4227

Project Hope — 411 Park Ave., Rock Hill, 803-328-8000

Salvation Army — 119 S. Charlotte Ave., Rock Hill, 803-324-5141

Fort Mill Care Center — 513 Banks St., Fort Mill, 803-547-7620

Clover Area Assistance Center — 1130 S.C. 55 East, Clover, 803-222-4837

PATH — 204 Raille St., York, 803-684-3992

Tender Hearts Community Outreach — 511 Kings Mountain St., York, 803-684-3132

Chester County Community Food Pantry — 135 Wylie St., Chester, 803-377-8175

Turning Point — 112 Gadsden St., Chester, 803-581-0219