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Salvation Army Stretching Donations to Serve Needy


About 2,000 San Diegans will line up outside Golden Hall Thursday morning for the Salvation Army’s 28th annual Thanksgiving dinner. The Salvation Army is just one local group trying to stretch its resources.

— About 2,000 San Diegans will line up outside Golden Hall Thursday morning for the Salvation Army’s 27th annual Thanksgiving dinner. The Salvation Army is just one local group trying to stretch its resources to meet the county’s exploding demand for services.

Chef Joe Olmos and his team of three cooks will start work in the Salvation Army’s Kearny Mesa kitchen around 1 a.m. on Thursday.

“We’ll need to start preparing things, portioning things, loading the ovens, preparing the coffee, the lemonade, preparing the side works, all the vegetables," Olmos said. "All the preparation is very, very heavy.”

For the last two and a half weeks, Olmos and his team have started work at 2 a.m. to precook the turkeys and Thanksgiving fixings before the kitchen’s regular shifts get started. In all, they’ve prepared more than 3,000 Thanksgiving meals.

By 8 a.m., workers will load 2,000 of those meals for a trip to Golden Hall. The rest will be served at the Salvation Army’s community centers around the county Wednesday afternoon. Many of those centers have more people to serve every day of the year.

“It’s been quite an incredible change in the last two years," said Captain Darren Norton, one of the Salvation Army’s officers at the El Cajon Community Center.

Norton sees that change reflected in the center's monthly food distribution.

“We started that about four years ago. I think the first time we helped about 120 families," Norton said. "We did it this past week and we had just under 400 families. That increase, again, has come just in the last year or two.”

The Salvation Army isn’t alone. The San Diego Food Bank is serving more than 340,000 people every month. That’s about 70 percent more than in 2008.

The rotten economy has more people showing up for all of the programs at the El Cajon center, Norton said. On a recent Saturday, volunteers signed up low-income families for the annual Christmas toy and food drive. It was the second and final opportunity for East County families to sign up at the center.

“The first day we did 550 families. We’re going to do another 600 here today," Norton said. "In the backcountry we’re going to sign up 350 to 400 families, so we’re anticipating somewhere between 1,500 and 1,600 East County families we’ll be serving this year.” In 2008, 1,300 families signed up.

Qualified families that sign up will get an appointment to visit the center in mid-December to pick out toys for their children and get a box of food and a grocery gift certificate.

Volunteers began registering people at 9 a.m. The first families were already in line around midnight. Natalie Sanchez, 21, said the wait is worth it.

“Not a lot of families get to have a Christmas and you know, it’s an extra help, extra toys for my daughter that she’s going to enjoy because she gets to open something up and you know – just a smile on her face," sanchez said. "That means a lot to me, just to come here for her.”

Norton said his staff is stretching every dollar to serve families like Sanchez’s.

“Donations have, they have not declined. But, they haven’t kept up with the need,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Salvation Army said while overall contributions have held steady, donations in the group’s familiar red kettles have actually increased during the recession.

The families waiting in line for the chance to have Christmas gifts for their children know what it means to stretch a dollar. Sanchez said she, for one, appreciates the extra effort from the Salvation Army and other charities.

“Thank you to the Salvation Army, because they do this for a lot of families and it’s a good chance for people who can’t afford gifts to come and get some and they could have a good Christmas this year," she said. "It’s just meaningful for me and hopefully for a lot of people here.”

Programs serving struggling San Diegans are likely to see their donations stretched even thinner for the time being. The U.S. Census Bureau shows the county’s median family income has fallen steadily since 2007.

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