AS MORE FALL IN DEBT, NEIGHBORS PROVIDES A SAFETY NET

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The $7.50 an hour Charles Glaser earns driving a propane truck never provided extravagant Christmas presents for his wife and son.

But with the unexpected burden of thousands of dollars in medical bills for a back injury this year, Glaser had to ask for help from the Neighbors in Need program to have any kind of holiday, he said.

"It has been totally devastating," the 42-year-old Taneytown man said of the past year, in which the injury put him out of work for seven months and plunged him into debt.

The Glasers are among 730 families this year asking for help through Neighbors in Need, a clearinghouse for area groups and individuals who want to buy food and presents for Carroll families during Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Last year, 583 families asked for help, said Lynda Gainor, deputy director of the non-profit Human Services Programs Inc., which coordinates 4-year-old Neighbors in Need.

Gainor attributed the increase in the number of families being helped to the faltering economy. More two-parent families, like the Glasers, are struggling to make ends meet, she said, and an unexpected setback can set them reeling financially.

The year has been "a long hard struggle," Glaser said, but he's walking again and returned to work last month.

He and his wife, Debra, an aide at Westminster Nursing Home, are trying to catch up on the $7,000 in medical bills left unpaid by his health insurance and the $1,000 in back rent their understanding landlady let them defer, he said.

"We're both working full-time to try to straighten ourselves out financially, if it's possible," Glaser said.

As the holidays approached, their son, Christopher, 13, had begun asking for Christmas gifts the family couldn't afford, Glaser said.

"We're not too proud to ask for help," he said. "We realize what our limitations are, and when you need help, that's it."

Glaser said he and his wife knew of the Neighbors program through other people who have gotten help.

He said his son has had to accept that the holiday will be leaner this year. The family is asking mostly for clothes, he said.

"He didn't like the idea, but we just told him, 'We can only do so much for you,' " Glaser said.

Neighbors in Need has extended its helping hand to many other families that need assistance in making the holidays brighter.

The vast room that once housed Leggett department store at 10 Distillery Drive again was filled with clothes and toys and other Christmas presents last week -- but no cash registers.

Everything was given away between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. Wednesday, when 360 families came at their appointed times to get the boxes.

Another 400 families were "adopted" by churches, groups of office workers and other organizations and individuals. By adopting a family, donors agree to purchase food for a holiday dinner and gifts for the family's children.

Gainor said the amount spent to adopt a family ranged from $50 to $500.

"This woman called and said, 'I only have $500 to spend.' I said, 'Excuse me, I don't think I heard you correctly,' " Gainor said. "Five hundred dollars will take care of a family amply."

Families that weren't adopted received presents and food through donations by various groups and individuals. Volunteers sorted the goods into boxes and noted any needed items, Gainor said. They made runs to area stores Tuesday night for clothes, toys, underwear or whatever was needed, such as batteries for toys.

Money to fill those gaps came from $800 in donations that arrived too late for use last Christmas, about $200 donated this season and a lot of credit, Gainor said.

"This is a big faith project," she said. "You have to have faith you'll fill the baskets, faith that volunteers will help fill them, and faith that you'll have enough money to pay for the turkeys."

As in previous years, the agency counts on donations this week to make up for what the agency has to spend to get the parcels to people, Gainor said.

"If we don't get donations, then it will be Human Services Programs' responsibility to go out and solicit donations," she said.

Among the highlights of the program this holiday season:

* In addition to buying 200 chickens and other food to distribute through Neighbors in Need, the Carroll County unit of the Salvation Army also has prepared gifts for 105 people in the addictions programs of the Carroll County Health Department; given gift certificates to 89 foster children in the county; and conducted a caroling party for more than 28 children of low-income families, said Chairman John Green.

* Northeast Social Action Program is donating 200 turkeys to Neighbors in Need. Also, the Northeast Carroll County Ministerial Alliance, which supports NESAP, has formed a network to connect families in need with church-based charities in Northeast Carroll.

* While several seniors were among those receiving help, others donated their warming handiwork -- hats, mittens, mufflers and slippers. The Finksburg Senior Center presented a few dozen items to the Neighbors program.

"I think about the greatest thing would be if I would be out shopping or someplace and recognize one of my hats on someone," said Evelyn Shillaci, 76, a member of the Finksburg center who crocheted several of the hats.

* A business has made an anonymous contribution of 360 blankets to the Neighbors program. Gainor said many families asked for blankets and sheets.

* Cranberry Mall and K mart allowed the program to set up "gift trees," on which hung slips of paper representing the request of one child in a family that was not adopted. Shoppers picked off names, bought the requested presents and the stores forwarded them to Neighbors in Need for distribution.

* Carroll County Food Sunday, a volunteer food bank operating year-round and based at 10 Distillery Drive, has supplied most of the canned food that Neighbors will be distributing, because most of the church food drives would not have finished by Tuesday, Gainor said.

When the food comes in, it will be returned to Food Sunday.

* More than 100 people have volunteered to pack boxes and sort donations to make sure each family gets something appropriate, Gainor said. A week ago, the volunteers included Sunday school classes from Grace Lutheran Church and St. Paul's United Church of Christ, both in Westminster. The third- and fourth-graders from St. Paul also brought their mothers.

"The children are great pickers for other kids," Gainor said of the children who helped sort donated toys from the general pool into boxes with children's names and ages on them.

* The Needlework Guild of America's Carroll County branch made over 1,500 knitted and hand-sewn items for Neighbors to distribute. Residents of Carroll Lutheran Village also knitted some items.

* Members of the National Guard in Westminster used their trucks to pick up food from local drives and toys from the U.S. Marine Corps' Toys for Tots program in Baltimore, for distribution through Neighbors in Need.

Some other groups in the county planning charitable events on their own are:

* Parishioners from St. John's Catholic Church in Westminster and St.

Joseph's Catholic Community Church in Eldersburg served more than 320 families, most with small children, this year through the annual adopt-a-family program, said Judy McPherson, social concerns coordinator at St. John's.

Some of the families may also be getting help through Neighbors in Need, McPherson said, but that's OK.

"We just don't see how people can get too much," McPherson said. If some families get two food baskets, they probably will need and use the food, she said. Those adopting families also provided one present for each child and adult, McPherson said.

* The Westminster Rescue Mission prepared food baskets for more than 50 families, and gave presents to any children who came with their parents for a Christian service Saturday at which the baskets were distributed.

* The Mount Airy Jaycees conducted its annual Christmas party for 35 needy children Dec. 15 at the Mount Airy Elementary School. The Jaycees provided gifts for each child, and the party included Santa, magicians and clowns.

* Pipe Creek Jaycees from Union Bridge and New Windsor collected toys for about 15 needy children whose names were forwarded by churches and organizations in the two towns.

* The Optimist Club of Freedom District threw a party for 200 children at its community center on Route 32 in Eldersburg, with donations from businesses throughout Eldersburg and Sykesville.

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