Driving for the holidays: Food, toy drives benefit local non-profits

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BRUNSWICK — Downeast Energy is doing a lot of driving this holiday season. Food and toy driving, that is.

The propane and heating oil company is participating in two campaigns this year: a toy drive to benefit children serviced by the Sweetser behavioral health organization of Saco, and a food drive sponsored by South Portland radio station WYNZ to benefit Preble Street Resource Center in Portland.

Betsy Morrell of Downeast Energy said the company participates in many fundraisers and recently completed another food drive to benefit Midcoast Hunger Prevention based in Brunswick. She said the Sweetser and Preble Street causes “spoke to us.”

She said that the company has participated in the Sweetser toy drive for at least nine years and that the program actively solicits gifts for teenagers, such as gift cards, electronics, calling cards and clothing, where many other toy drives focus on younger children.

“Often teenagers get left out,” she said.

Downeast Energy has collection boxes in its offices in Brunswick, Kennebunk, Lisbon Falls, York, Waterville, Hallowell, Mt. Vernon, South Portland, Windham, Biddeford, Yarmouth and Springvale. Unwrapped gifts for children ages 6 through 18 will be accepted from Nov. 19 to Dec. 10.

Morrell said the company became involved in the food drive called “Stuff A Big Bus Food Drive” as a corporate sponsor years ago. She said Preble Street meets “a lot of different needs,” including those of the chronically and sporadically homeless.

“It’s a great way to leverage the dollars that we give,” she said.

Preble Street Development Manager Melanie McKean said the “Stuff the Bus” campaign is the largest of the year for the organization, collecting about three months worth of food.

“I don’t know what we would do without it,” McKean said.

Each day, Preble Street serves about 1,100 meals in the soup kitchen, she said. Additional people receive assistance from the weekly food pantry.

It takes about 500 volunteers per week in the soup kitchen, McKean said, adding there is always a need for additional volunteers. She said there are businesses that donate employee volunteers to help out, but this year, Preble Street’s volunteers have been responsible for all three meals served in the soup kitchen. In past years, only breakfast fell to Preble Street to provide.

While the food drive helps feed people through the holidays, McKean said there is a need year-round for food and cash donations as well as volunteers.

“Come January, March and July, we will still need the same amount of food and volunteers,” she said.

During the past two years, Preble Street has seen a 30 percent increase in need for its services, McKean said. The soup kitchen and food pantry aren’t serving only homeless people, she said, as there has been an increase in recent years of working people who cannot afford to feed their families.

“Anybody that walks through our doors and says they need help, we offer them assistance,” McKean said.

The soup kitchen will be open on Thanksgiving but the food pantry will switch days that week to Tuesday, she said.

“Big Hits Y100.9” Morning show host Chuck Igo said the food drive began nearly 20 years ago with radio station WMGX and was formerly called “Stuff the Mayflower,” though Preble Street has always been the beneficiary. He said Preble Street has expanded to offer many more services and said “it’s quite an undertaking on their part.”

Igo calls the food drive “a labor of love” but said “it’s a lot of fun.” More than a dozen local schools in Cape Elizabeth, Portland, South Portland and Scarborough participate in the food drive and several schools allow the children to help carry donations to the bus so they can see the increasing amount of food, Igo said.

In past years, Cape Elizabeth Middle School has donated so much food, it took nearly 30 minutes to load all of it on the bus, he said, adding that Longfellow Elementary School in Portland had boxes stacked along the length of an entire hallway three to four boxes high. By the time all the donated food is picked up from the schools, the bus is often already 3/4 full.

“Every little bit does help,” Igo said. “There is no effort that is too small.”

There are also local businesses that sign up to donate, he said. Some businesses donate food and some participate in a “virtual food drive” by making online donations directly to Preble Street through a link on the station’s website, www.y1009.com. Cash donations are used to purchase perishable items such as milk.

There is also the opportunity for individuals to donate food. There will be a bus collecting food donations for Preble Street parked at Hannaford in Back Cove Nov. 23 from 7 to 10 a.m. and near the Maine Mall from 1o a.m. to 7 p.m. The bus will return to Back Cove Nov. 24 from 7 a.m. to noon. Everything collected will be delivered to Preble Street in time for Thanksgiving.

Other corporate sponsors of the food drive include Wright Express, Falmouth Physical Therapy, Maine Credit Unions Campaign for Ending Hunger, Hannaford,  MarketFresh Produce and Custom Coach and Limousine.

Stephanie Grinnell can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or sgrinnell@theforecaster.net