By Neil Haggerty
For the 65th year, hundreds of volunteers are expected to pack baskets of food and presents this holiday season for needy families in Buena Vista, Lexington and Rockbridge County.
“We have first aid crews, we have fire departments, we have Ruritan clubs, we have churches, we have civic groups,” said Audrey Hawkins, co-chair of Rockbridge Christmas Baskets. “It’s just the most amazing community effort that you could possibly experience.”
Rockbridge Christmas Baskets was created in 1949 by the local women’s clubs. Originally called The Santa Train, the program provided baskets of food to about 150 families. It now serves more than 1,000 families.
Alfred Mackey has volunteered with Rockbridge Christmas Baskets since the 1970s. He says people in need are what keep him coming back to the program every year.
“I love to see the reactions of the people that get the boxes, because 90 percent of them actually need it,” Mackey said. “The rest of them are so surprised that they got it, they weren’t expecting them, and that’s just a good feeling.”
Rockbridge Christmas Baskets operates entirely by volunteers and donations. Hawkins said the program has a budget of about $60,000. More than 500 people came last year to help pack and distribute baskets at The Virginia Horse Center, she said.
When times are tough and stress is high around the holiday season, Rockbridge Christmas Baskets makes a difference for many.
“I think there’s a lot of anxiety,” said Rockbridge Area Relief Association Director Mary Brown. “The Christmas basket program is a real benefit to some of the people.”
Brown said November has consistently been the busiest month for her organization’s food pantry. She said it is especially difficult for some families to afford heating bills as well.
She said the food pantry is averaging about 600 families a month, and that number continues to grow.
People applied to receive Christmas baskets through RARA, as well as the Rockbridge Area Health Center, and social services. There are no specific criteria for eligibility, but the local fire departments and Ruritan clubs review accepted applications. The deadline for this year has already passed.
Project Horizon Executive Director Judy Casteele said it is hard enough for the victims of domestic violence and sexual assault to pay for essentials. Casteele said the Christmas basket program is a “big deal” for those people.
The program keeps growing. Children in their teens were not eligible for presents from the program until the late 1990s. It now provides gifts to children up to age 18.
But serving more than 1,000 families is not an easy task for Rockbridge Christmas Baskets.
Hawkins said fundraising and organizing is a year-round effort, starting in January. She said people of all income levels do their best to contribute. The average donation is just over $20.
Hawkins remembers a woman in her 40s who couldn’t give money, but wanted to help out in some way.
When the woman was a child, her mother would tell all of her siblings to stay in one room because Santa was coming with presents.
The woman later discovered that those presents came through Rockbridge Christmas Baskets, so she wanted to give back to the program.
Food costs jumped almost 40 percent in 2012 because the program could not purchase food directly from the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank because of a change in its policy as the need for food assistance kept rising.
Food Bank Communications Director Ruth Jones said the Nov. 1 cuts to the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program – formerly Food Stamps — could mean even more demand for food in the area.
But Rockbridge Christmas Baskets received a unique donation in 2012 that helped offset the 40 percent increase in food costs.
A software worker in Georgia had driven through the area when volunteers were packing baskets a few years ago. He was touched by the effort and decided to send a check to the program.
He came through with a similar gift again this year, Hawkins said.
Hawkins said companies like Mattel have offered generous discounts on toys for the Christmas basket program. She said the organization has been able to buy toys that typically cost almost $30 for less than $15.
She said Kroger also offers some discounts on food for the program.
Volunteers will pack baskets Dec. 21. Co-chair A.B. Hammond said it is a little later this year because Thanksgiving was later than usual.
Allen Young of the Natural Bridge Fire Department has been with the program for about 20 years. He said Rockbridge Christmas Baskets has been a learning experience.
“Being a resident of a rural area, I see so much need,” Young said. “When my children were younger, the best schooling they got was to go along with the distribution and see how some of the people in our community live.”
How to help
Volunteers will pack baskets Dec. 21 beginning at 8 a.m. All interested volunteers are welcome to participate..
Donations can be mailed to P.O. Box 1030, Lexington, Va. 24450.