Holiday season focus turning from wants to needs

Daily News
November 26, 2008

This holiday season, focus is turning from wants to needs at area charities

By Susan Abram

This holiday, it’s not the teddy bears, Barbies and canned hams that have the working poor and homeless lining up at charity giveaways. It’s the peanut butter, toothpaste, blankets, shampoo and deodorant.

As local charities and pantries gear up for Christmas amid the worst economic downturn in decades, requests from the disadvantaged have turned from wants to needs.

“The No. 1 need right now is for groceries,” said Melissa Ryder, who founded the Friends and Helpers Foundation 17 years ago to help battered women and their children in the San Fernando Valley and the rest of Los Angeles.

Ryder added that soap, baby diapers, hooded sweat shirts, thick socks and new packs of underwear all ran a close second.

Meet Each Need with Dignity, based in Pacoima, will hold its annual Christmas Basket program for 1,200 needy families. The anti-poverty agency is asking for 500 turkeys, packages of flour and sugar, hot chocolate, and oatmeal.

“We like to ask for items such as rice, beans and peanut butter, food that can get a family by to hold them over, and not necessarily a luxury,” said MEND program director Maggie Torres. “A blanket could be a big thing.”

This holiday season, Ryder hopes 2,000 families will be “adopted” by individuals and companies. But while calls to help have trickled in, those who normally adopt a family of five are asking for a family of two. And those who used to write out $500 checks, are now sending in $25.

Given the changing needs of the recipients – and the tighter belts of the donors – Ryder and other charity workers are asking donors to rethink contributions.

“It could be a gift card to McDonald’s so that a mother could have a dinner with her child, just so they can have that gift of normalcy of eating at a table together,” Ryder said. “People need things like warm jackets, gas cards, pajamas, slippers, warm socks. If everybody gave $5 Target gift cards, we could change so much.”

For months, charities have called their predicament a perfect storm as the economic downturn forces more workers to seek aid. And just as demand at food pantries across Los Angeles has soared, donations to regional food banks and local pantries have slowed.

Annual visits to the SOVA Community Food and Resource Program in Van Nuys are projected to reach nearly 70,000, up from about 56,000 the year before.

Organizers of an annual holiday party at St. Michael and All Angeles Church in Studio City say that in addition to a luncheon, they offer knitting lessons to children.

Donations of extra knitting needles and yarn are needed, said Jane Wilson, who chairs the community outreach program.

“Everybody is hurting financially now, but I don’t want people to think that just because they can’t pony up money to a charity, they feel worthless,” she said.

But among the poor, there always are those who still slip between the cracks: teenagers.

“It’s easier to buy gifts for little kids, but a lot of these kids in need are 14 or 15 or 16 years old who mostly want movie passes, or gift cards to a fast-food restaurant,” said David Levinson, founder of the two-day, all-volunteer annual effort in Los Angeles known as Big Sunday.

To continue the momentum of that event, Levinson compiles a list each holiday season at, where donors can find dozens of charities in need.

“In the end, people are looking for ways to help,” he said. “I just find this to be true year in and year out. The list keeps growing as is the desire to help.

“I always say, everybody should feel good about giving,” he said. “There’s no shame in it.”

(Copyright 2008 The Daily News of Los Angeles)

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