WHITINGHAM -- The Lions Club has brought food to the needy for the holidays for many years now and its volunteer participation continues to grow.
"It's an amazing program," said President of the Whitingham-Halifax Lions Club Jennifer Betit-Engel. "I'm really happy to be a part of it. It's something I look forward to every year and I hope it can be spread to help more people."
The Saturday before Christmas, volunteers delivered groceries and poinsettias to about 125 families, making it to about 425 people this year.
The Food Grocery Project is a program created by members of the Whitingham-Halifax Lions Club and it starts in October every year.
The group's goal is to find as many families that are struggling and make a list of those who can be assisted by the program. Sometimes, a family may not necessarily be in the spotlight, but a bus driver or school nurse can tell a volunteer and the family can be put on the list.
"We get a large recipient list together early," said Betit-Engel. "So we know how much funding we need."
After the list is complete, volunteers seek funding from groups such as the Deerfield Valley Rotary Club and TransCanada.
The Vermont Foodbank gives the Lions Club any food items that are available.
"I figure out, myself, how many things people should get," Betit-Engel said. "Usually, there is one can of soup per person and one skillet dinner per family.
If a family is bigger than most, an extra skillet dinner may be added.
The items given to struggling families also included oil for heating the house, flour and sugar. Baskets contained food such as turkey, chicken, fresh fruit and veggies, loaves of sliced bread and wedges of cheddar cheese.
"We stay away from Ramen and Cup of Noodles," said Betit-Engel. "We try to put nicer products, usually two or three heaping bags for families and seven or eight for bigger families."
The Lions Club also delivers poinsettias to members of the community who may have experienced a death in the family or that the club just wants to thank for their participation.
The Lions Club holds an annual bike race event called the "Hungry Lion Bike Tour." It is a fundraiser where participants can take a 25-mile bike loop or a 50-mile loop. Teams are encouraged to participate as well. For each person, it costs $50. The money goes to help fund the Food Grocery Project.
"It's been very well received. Last year we thought we might lose money, but made just about $6,000. We're hoping to get $10,000 this year, that's our goal," Betit-Engel said.
The last "Hungry Lion Bike Tour" started in Whitingham and went into parts of Massachusetts such as Shelburne Falls.
The Lions Club first started a program to help the hungry about 20 years ago, when volunteers hosted a dinner for struggling families at the Chelsea Royal Diner in Brattleboro.
"Club members said we could do more, so we did baskets. Now, the Basket Program has turned into the Grocery Project."
The idea has been to make the program grow. It started with helping families with one dinner. Now, it's evolved into giving families at least two weeks worth of food. Betit-Engel told the Reformer that it always depends on funds, but the program has grown.
The Deerfield Valley Rotary Club had decided that it wanted to team up with the Lions Club on the Grocery Project after flooding caused by Tropical Storm Irene. Betit-Engel asked them if they wanted to join the cause because the Lions Club needed more money and manpower.
The Deerfield Valley Rotary Club has been helping for the past two years. The two organizations have had success with working as a team
"It's so well-received in the community," Betit-Engel said. "Especially when kids are home during holidays. It gives an extra boost around the holidays."
She told the Reformer about a volunteer who has a big, white beard and had been carrying huge bags of food into a home that was to receive help from the Lions Club.
"The kids were like, ‘Santa's here and he has food for us!' The parents said, ‘If we didn't have this, we would have had to choose between oil to heat our house or food.' So we really helped out," Betit-Engel said.
The Lions Club is looking to expand and help out other communities.
"We've been meeting with a lot of other organizations in the area like Twice Blessed and the Foodbank. We're trying to get all the team leaders together to find areas we're missing," Betit-Engel said.