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‘Bit More Difficult’

Salvation Army Preparing For Tough Holiday Season

Maj. John Merchant of the Salvation Army tends to an “Angel Tree” in December 2019. Merchant is anticipating COVID-19 to pose a significant challenge to the agency this holiday season. P-J file photos

For the general population, the thought of making preparations for the Christmas season during the summer would seem ludicrous.

But, for Maj. John Merchant, it’s essential — especially this year.

“This year is much different than normal,” said Merchant, who oversees the local Salvation Army with his wife, Maj. Kim Merchant.

Indication that this would be a different holiday season for the agency came to the Merchants in June and July as Chautauqua County saw an uptick of confirmed cases of COVID-19. Throughout the pandemic, the Salvation Army, which operates the largest food pantry in the county, has helped served upward of 1,000 families per month — a 15% increase of their usual average.

During its peak season, however, volunteers help raise between $115,000 and $120,000 during its Red Kettle campaign, with all monies from supporting those in need of assistance with utilities, medication, food and shelter, among others.

But Merchant fears that the pandemic will heavily affect that number as well as the number of volunteers.

“It’s going to be a little bit more difficult volunteering for us,” Merchant said. “Only one person is allowed at the stand and can’t have groups — we can’t have a mother with their children, which for many is to help foster another generation of volunteers.”

Annual participants, Tops Friendly Markets and Walmart, have agreed to allow the campaign to take place at their local store fronts, he said. But, precautions will have to be taken: friendly smiles will unfortunately have to be covered by a facemask and even those who look to spread Christmas cheer through music will be restricted.

“Usually the Salvation Army has their band play at Tops on Washington Street. … We can’t even do that,” Merchant said. “One person can play music, but if becomes a crowd, then they’ll have to stop immediately.”

“We’re still trying to figure out how this all is going to work,” he said.

Meanwhile, the organization has not stopped serving those in need, providing pre-boxed food to those who would arrive at the door of the food pantry. Extra food giveaways continued as did the mobile food pantry at the end of each month.

“We’ve had to do things differently,” he said, “Now we’ve opened it up a little bit so that people have choice. We’ll give them a clipboard of what they would prefer from the pantry. We’ve had to change the way that we do things and we are requiring masks.”

The capacity to do so has been made possible by about a dozen volunteers who have continued to serve through March. It’s also been made possible financially from a variety of supporters ranging from an anonymous group that raised $5,400 for the organization to Univera Health Care, who donated $10,000 to help support the food pantry and provide reusable shopping bags for clients to take their food home in.

Other support has come from Cummings Engine, which placed a clothing storage bin at their location to collect items for those who stay at the organization’s shelter, the United Way of Southern Chautauqua County’s Emergency Food and Shelter Program, which assisted with rent, other local foundations and the Ellery Center Volunteer Fire Dept. and the Chautauqua Property Owner’s Association.

“We’ve had a few folks and part of our family help us out and they’re no strangers to the Salvation Army,” Merchant said. “They’ve reached out a helping hand which by all means right now is needed and appreciated.”

Still, as the holidays slowly roll around the corner, and with applications for assistance during the Christmas season starting in September, Merchant still worries about the organization’s ability to fulfill all requests.

“We’re trying to be cautious in letting people know that we can’t make any guarantees,” he said. “All of our stuff comes in through the generosity of the community. We will do our best to make sure all of that happens.”

He added, “We have an operating budget that really has taken some hard times because of COVID. We’re just lacking in funds. There’s not as many resources coming in via the mail appeal and regular donations and if we can’t raise that money, we’re not able to take care of the needs as we have in the past.”

Applications for Christmas are being taken by appointment only. Appointments can be made by calling 664-4108. Once an appointment is made, Merchant is asking that only the head of household visit the agency to fill it out.

Meanwhile, those interested in volunteering for the Red Kettle campaign are urged to call the same number.

“We’re really going to be hard pressed for volunteers for kettles,” Merchant said. “We’re hoping we can get some folks to help us out. If we don’t raise the funding then something’s going to be cut out from what we normally do because we won’t be able to afford it. We’ve already reached into our reserves to pay our employees and to continue the service to the community, we’re really hoping to raise these funds because without them, I’m not sure what we would do at this point.”

“This is not a small task,” Merchant said. “We’re praying real hard on it and we’re hoping that we can get the community to rally behind us again. We do have a wonderful community that helps us to be able to help others.”

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