SWEET HOME — Like every 7-year-old boy or girl in the mid-valley, Sophia Sullens was eager to open her presents on Christmas Day, enjoy a tasty dinner and spend the day at home with her family.
But Tuesday afternoon, the freckle-faced second-grader was learning that the true joy of the season is giving, not receiving.
She was part of a small army of volunteers at St. Helen Catholic Church who were making sure 45 families had plenty of food for their Christmas feast. Sophia carefully wrapped large boxes with bright Christmas paper and then helped haul the bounty to waiting vehicles.
For many years the church has participated in a Christmas food basket program coordinated by SHEM — Sweet Home Emergency Ministries — which works with churches and community organizations to aid 175 families and 1,000 people in the Sweet Home School District.
The program is coordinated by the Knights of Columbus Council 8624 and funded by the church and individual donors. This year’s tally came to more than $2,000.
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Sophia was the youngest volunteer, but she wasn’t the only kid pitching in.
Her sister Amelia Mae, 13, helped their father Kyle Sullens pick up a trailer load of food aided by their cousin Gavin Gardner, 13. His sister, Grace, 10, helped wrap boxes, although a snowboarding accident that resulted in a broken wrist added some difficulty to the effort.
Olivia Sullens, 10, counted out handfuls of candy canes to go in each box and then made sure each family received a pumpkin pie and whipped cream to top it off.
Handling the heavy work of toting the hefty boxes fell on the Towry siblings — Evan, Owen and Katelynn.
The oldest volunteer was Herb Thums, who turned 85 on Dec. 14 and has been a faithful participant for years. He was joined by fellow Knights Leo Fernandez, Leo Singler, Gilbert Bures, Randy Bartlett and Ray Towry.
“The mission of our church is to help people,” Kyle Sullens said. “These days that help is needed more than ever.”
Shortly after Sullenses pulled a trailer load of food outside the church hall doors, cans of vegetables and fruit, jars of peanut butter, bags of potatoes, packages of stuffing mix, dinner rolls, gravy mix, pickles, mustard, marshmallows and much more were lined up on tables waiting to be put into the boxes.
Everyone got plenty of food for more than one meal, plus a 10-pound bag of potatoes, a large ham, a pumpkin pie and whipped cream and even a roll or two of paper towels.
Larger families got a double load of food.
Heather McLaughlin has ramrodded the box preparation and fill-up for several years, and in fewer than 90 minutes, the boxes were ready for pickup. She was assisted by Marci Sullens, Ali Gardner and Shannon Towry.
Kyle Sullens said this year’s list of names included several new ones: families affected by the bruising economics of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Eddie Ostrander is one of those people.
“They have cut us to six hours per day at my job,” Ostrander said. “This will be very helpful for sure.”
Shena Rosencrantz, 29, has two children, 2 months old and 2 years old.
“This really helps, especially this year,” she said.
St. Helen’s is just one of several churches and community organizations that make the program happen.
Other participating churches are Sweet Home Nazarene, Sweet Home Christian, Community Chapel, Cornerstone Fellowship, Evangelical, United Methodist and Riverside Christian. Bikers for Christ, the Veterans Club and Sweet Home Elks Lodge also help out.
All of their efforts start with SHEM Christmas Basket Program coordinator Julie Dedman.
The Christmas baskets are a longstanding tradition for the 40-year-old grassroots volunteer group that, in some years, has coordinated the creation of more than 200 boxes.
“If not me, then who?,” volunteer Julie Dedman said of her 10 years working with SHEM. “I like to help people. It’s my calling.”
She’s coordinating this year’s food drive and said response from the community has again been heartwarming.
Participants are asked to provide enough food for at least one meal, but in reality, the boxes are brimming with food for numerous meals and some include gifts for family members, especially children.
“We start gathering names in October,” Dedman said. “We always have a pretty steady list of participants, and we reach out to new ones every year.”
SHEM gathers information about family sizes and ages and provides a general list of food items that should be included in each food box. Eligibility is based on income level.
Due to COVID-19 distancing restrictions, no one except volunteers are allowed inside the office on Long Street, making this year’s effort a little more taxing.
Participating agencies do not usually deliver the boxes, but set up times and places where families can pick them up.
“It’s amazing how appreciative people are,” Dedman said. “Without these boxes, many of them would not have much to eat for Christmas.”
Monday, volunteers from Riverside Christian Church filled colorful boxes.
“It’s something I like to do,” Robin Adams said. “It makes me feel good in my heart to help people who need it.”
But SHEM doesn’t only help feed families at Christmas. It’s the group's core year-round mission.
Working with Linn Benton Food Share, SHEM provides monthly meal boxes — enough to last at least five days — to about 250 families and more than 1,000 people.
Families with children may get a second box, and the homeless can pick up a bag of food every week.
SHEM volunteers also participate in Manna, which provides hot meals three times a week at the Methodist Church.
“We aren’t able to have people come inside for Manna, so they are missing that important socialization that comes with communal meals,” Dedman said.
In addition to providing food, SHEM also offers families general financial help, rent and utilities assistance, free blankets, and clothing and hygiene goods through Carmen’s Closet.
In the first 11 months of 2020, SHEM provided 2,038 food boxes and assisted 7,226 adults and 2,460 children.
Volunteers contributed 6,578 hours.
Manna served 7,240 meals with 378 volunteers.
Cindy Rice has spent more than 30 years volunteering with SHEM in various departments.
She is now the food pantry manager.
“We have 12 regular volunteers,” Rice said. “We are living in such an uncertain time. It really gets down to having family — that’s what is important.”
Rice said the food boxes will help families maintain holiday traditions, even if they are sharing meals on the Internet.
Rice said SHEM has seen a new group of people due to the economic slide caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are seeing families whose jobs have been affected, their hours reduced,” Rice said. “They don’t know how to navigate with less income. It’s not their fault.”
According to SHEM, one in every five Linn County residents sought food assistance from an emergency food pantry in the last year and about 260,000 Oregonians received food last month.
The food insecurity rate in Linn County is about 21%; in Benton County, it's 17%.
The South Corvallis Food Bank is one of several food pantries in Benton County.
Executive Director Sheila O’Keefe said the organization assists about 300 families and 1,000 people with food boxes every month.
O’Keefe said that number is down a little from pre-pandemic days, when 400 families and more than 1,400 people were helped.
“It’s kind of surprising,” O’Keefe said. “We can’t really figure out why, except that perhaps people are concerned about leaving their homes or have received stimulus assistance.”
Linn Benton Food Share plays a major role in providing food for families in Linn and Benton counties year-round.
“It has certainly been an interesting 10 months,” said Ryan McCambridge, executive director of the regional food bank. “We’ve seen increased and reduced demand and, at times, disruptions in food supplies since March. Things seems to be working out now.
“We definitely saw a marked increase in need in March and April,” McCambridge said. “As federal and state support came into play, things steadied out and we saw a decline, but now we are seeing need start to rise again.”
McCambridge said Linn Benton Food Share helps community-based programs provide food to 10,000 people per month. Local gleaners groups provide nourishing, locally sourced foods to another 5,000.
“It’s been a real challenge for our food agencies, who have to adhere to the Centers for Disease Control guidelines about socially distancing. They have had to redo how they do business, and we have had to make changes at the Food Share warehouse.”
McCambridge said Linn-Benton Food Share switched to weekly deliveries for the food programs, up from twice a month, due in part to the Farmer to Families program.
“We have received first-class produce and dairy items,” McCambridge said.
Contact Linn County reporter Alex Paul at 541-812-6114.