‘If we ever needed this, we need it now’

This year will look a little different than the 2019 Soroptimist Christmas Food Basket Giveaway (Siuslaw News File Photo).

Soroptimists plan ahead for the Christmas Food Basket Giveaway

Oct. 21, 2020 — Soroptimist International of Florence members are a small but mighty group. At just 12 active members, they are wrapping up their annual rose sale this Friday and looking ahead to the winter months.

The group’s largest event is the free Christmas Food Basket Giveaway, which will be held Saturday, Dec. 19, at Siuslaw Middle School, 2525 Oak St., from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

However, just like every other event in 2020, this year is going to look a little different.

“First of all, we’re only going to do food there,” said event coordinator Carol Bennett. “We are not doing any toys.”

The event is normally accompanied by a toy giveaway, usually held at the Florence Church of the Nazarene.

“It’s impossible to do toys under COVID,” Bennett said, citing both the number of Soroptimists and the current guidelines surrounding donations and sanitizing options.

She added that she knew of other groups in town who are still working on the toy side, but further details aren’t yet available.

It also clears up the Soroptimists’ schedules to focus on providing Christmas dinners to hundreds of families this December.

“We normally prepare for 400 to 425 households,” Bennett said. “We’re going to plan on buying food for 500 families this year.”

Coupled with an increase in food costs, she estimated that the Soroptimists will need to spend an additional $10,000 over previous years.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people about this, and they’ve all said, ‘If we ever needed this, we need it now,’” Bennett said.

The Soroptimists are working on a letter of solicitation that will go out to people who have supported the Basket Giveaway in the past.

“We get a lot of support,” Bennett said. “This is a generous community.”

If people would like to donate, contact Bennett at 541-991-3455. Donations will be accepted through December.

As for the Christmas Food Basket Giveaway, it will operate similar to the past. People will enter Siuslaw Middle School from 27th Street, tell volunteers how many people are in their households — usually between 2 and 8 — and receive a free basket of food with all the fixings for a holiday dinner.

Each Community Christmas Basket contains either a turkey or chicken; stuffing, dinner rolls and canned vegetables; fresh potatoes, carrots, apples and oranges; eggs, butter and milk; applesauce and fruit cocktail; and pantry items such as crackers, peanut butter and jam. Plus, each box also contains cookies and candy canes.

A majority of the items are pre-packaged and will be handled by volunteers wearing masks and gloves. For the items that will be bagged onsite, including the apples and oranges, masked and gloved volunteers will carefully ensure sanitation.

“We have enough space that we can spread out the stacks of foods on the pallets,” Bennett said. “We have the ability to separate those by six feet.”

Volunteers, also masked and gloved, will fill shopping carts with items from each of the stations, gathering up the boxes, cans and other goods depending on the number of people in a household. Just like in a normal year, the people receiving their baskets won’t have to get out of their cars.

Bennett said she is complying with every piece of advice she can to keep the food recipients and volunteers safe.

“This may be the new norm for what we have to do in the future,” she noted. “Who knows? I want it to work, and I don’t want anybody to be sick.”

The Christmas Food Basket Giveaway regularly sees nearly 100 volunteers working to organize and staff the event.

“This is a big project, and the Soroptimists have never done it by ourselves,” Bennett said.

Local groups including Kiwanis Club of Florence, Rotary Club of Florence, Florence Elks, Florence Masonic Lodge and Camp Florence have provided volunteers and other support.

“We just coordinate it,” Bennett said. “Somebody from our group contacts stores to order the food, find the location and collect some money. But it has always been the community.”

The Christmas Food Basket Giveaway was started by a Florence Soroptimist more than 30 years ago, who started keeping food and toy donations in her shop for people in need.

“It started out of the back of a station wagon, and now we can’t do it out of the station wagon anymore,” Bennett said.

The baskets continue to be free to the community, with a value of approximately $60 worth of food inside.

“They get a pretty good box of food,” Bennett said. “Our goal is not just for dinner, but to feed them for the day, at least.”

She said that was why each box has peanut butter — “that’s a good protein” — and snacks that kids can put together themselves.

Even the box of cookies included in the basket is special. Donated by Little Dutch Boy Cookie Company from Draper, Utah, the cookies are festive and delicious. All the Soroptimists have to pay is freight.

The Christmas Food Basket Giveaway also requires no paperwork from recipients.

“There are no requirements, and that’s a really important thing,” Bennett said. “There’s nothing they have to fill out to get this box. All they have to do is come to the school and say they need a box and tell us how big a family they’re trying to feed. … Because we don’t require any qualifications, it doesn’t reduce what they can get from food share.”

People eligible for food from Florence Food Share get 12 boxes a year.

“This doesn’t count as one of those boxes,” Bennett stated.

That’s not to say that the Soroptimists don’t work with food share. They get guidance on their numbers from the organization, and donates leftover food at the end of distribution.

In addition, any additional funds raised go right back into the Soroptimist’s account for next year’s basket giveaway.

“We’re very careful about what we spend our money on. It is public money and we have to be careful,” Bennett said.

It is also a public event. People who want to be involved can contact Bennett about volunteering, or just show up on the day of the event around 9 a.m. Masks will be required, but the Soroptimists will be providing gloves and disinfectant wipes. People should also dress for December weather, which is often cold and rainy.

Also new this year, volunteers will need to sign in and provide contact information. Bennett said this is important if people do get sick so the Soroptimists can trace people’s contacts.

It’s a reality of 2020.

Bennett also acknowledged that the decision to focus on the food baskets may disappoint people who were looking forward to the toy giveaway.

The Soroptimists are willing to give advice to the groups putting together toy donations.

“I don’t want to discourage that, but we can’t do it this year. But we can do this,” Bennett said. “And I think this is equally as important. If I have to choose between a kid getting a toy and getting fed, he’s going to get fed.”

Soroptimist International of Florence is also working to adapt to 2020. Members meet virtually through Zoom meetings and gather the board of directors. They also are concluding their rose sale on Friday, Oct. 23, where people can buy a dozen roses for $20. These will be delivered on Nov. 3. People can call Soroptimist Jo Hine at 541-997-2233 to order.

People can mail donations for the Christmas Food Basket Giveaway to Soroptimist International of Florence, PO Box 1209, Florence OR 97439. They can also contact Bennett at 541-991-3455 or [email protected]