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Ron Little unloads some of the coats that Admiral Cleaners in Westminster cleaned and delivered to The Shepherd's Staff for its annual Call for Coats drive.
Ron Little unloads some of the coats that Admiral Cleaners in Westminster cleaned and delivered to The Shepherd's Staff for its annual Call for Coats drive. (KEN KOONS/STAFF PHOTO / Carroll County Times)

They were a young family — what appeared to be a mother, father and small children — sitting on folding outdoor chairs facing a local strip mall. We saw them, recently, as my husband and I were exiting the shopping center. That’s when we noticed their sign that read something like, “We need help.”

I couldn’t believe what I had just witnessed and, admittedly, I felt anger about the possibility of the children being used as a scam to get money. As we progressed onto our next stop — Panera Bread — I became ashamed that we hadn’t stopped because, after all, whatever the need, innocent children were involved. And who am I to judge the parents when I have no idea of what their situation is? I imagine pride would be the least of my concerns if I needed to put food on the table or to have a warm place for my family to live.

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Obviously, that family needed help and I began to think of the possibility of their being hungry as I ate my soup and sandwich, feeling guilt and regret. When I saw a county police officer in the restaurant, I immediately reported to him what I had seen and we both talked about the many services of which the family could avail themselves. The officer gave me his card, offering to visit the strip mall where I had seen the family a short time before.

Later, I emailed him and he responded that, though the family had left when he arrived, a fellow officer had steered them to the county services available.

And there are many — seemingly more than that of other places I’ve lived. For example, The Shepherd’s Staff — a Christian outreach and support center — helps those in need. Among their many projects are collecting new and gently used coats; providing help with the cost of prescriptions; purchasing back-packs and school supplies for back-to-school students; distributing Christmas stockings filled with items for infants, toddlers and school-aged children, and the annual Community Thanksgiving Day Dinner.

Another outreach organization, Human Services Programs of Carroll County, Inc. (HSP), a non-profit Community Action Agency, provides an abundance of services, including programs entitled Shelter and Housing, Home Energy, and Family Support.

As a member of the Westminster United Methodist Church, I was surprised to see a line (sometimes between 60 and 120 people) who wait for the doors to open on Mondays and Fridays when lunch is served. (The church is one of several houses of worship that provide a free lunch throughout the week.) In addition, the congregation collects donations of canned goods and non-perishable food items every fourth Sunday which are delivered to the organization of Carroll County Food Sunday, a division of HSP that distributes the food where needed.

Last winter, the Cold Weather Shelter, under the HSP, served over 165 individuals who needed a warm place to sleep, averaging about 35 people a night. Volunteers oversee the shelter from 6 to 10 p.m. A current need is for various clothing items such as adult-sized sweat pants, new underwear for men and women, winter coats, weatherproof gloves, sweatshirts, fleece jackets, new socks, twin-sized sheets and blankets and new or gently used towels and washcloths.

As the Christmas season approaches, there are more needs and more opportunities to give. The Carroll County Times sponsors an annual Holiday Hope campaign which raised $132,000 last year for partner charities which included Carroll Food Sunday, Neighbors in Need Year-Round, Carroll Hospice, Access Carroll and The Shepherd’s Staff.

Things happen that are out of our control. Loss of jobs, health issues and catastrophic events can completely deplete finances, leaving a single mother, individual, parents, elderly person, husband or wife without any means of support.

As Thanksgiving approaches, I’m thankful for living in a community that cares, one where people hang gloves in the winter among the trees on Main Street to warm the hands of strangers. And one in which so many volunteers contribute to the welfare of others.

I’ll continue to wonder about the family I saw and hope that they are warm, safe and on their way to stability.

The next time I see a plea for help, I’ll know what to do.

Dolly Merritt writes from Westminster. Her Prime column appears on the third Sunday of the month.

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