Applicants outstrip capacity of Groton holiday assistance programs

Groton - Groton Human Services reached its maximum of 500 recipients of Thanksgiving and Christmas aid on Thursday and began turning families away, referring them to local churches for holiday meals and to another program for toys.

The department distributes meals for Thanksgiving and meals and toys for Christmas. It had expected to accept applications through Wednesday but already has had to turn away 24 families.

Applications are up for all assistance, including help with oil, rent and utilities. Families also are asking to visit the food locker more frequently than every three months, as had been typical, social worker Debbie Burke said.

Other agencies, such as the United Way/Gemma Moran Food Center and the Salvation Army, are reporting a greater need this year as well.

The New London food center put out an SOS on Thursday, looking for 400 more turkeys to reach its goal of providing 2,300 families with food baskets for Thanksgiving Thursday.

The Salvation Army in New London is preparing turkeys and bags of groceries for 300 families, providing a meal for all who applied for Thanksgiving help, according to Capt. Melissa Borrero. But about 400 families have qualified for help at Christmas, seeking not only toys and food, but also clothes, blankets and other household items, she said.

"I've been here 17 years, and this is the first time I've ever seen it like this," Diane Schrage, a counselor in Groton, said.

The town's human services director, Marge Fondulas, said the number of people the town can help is limited by space constraints and the number of staff needed to process applications, including verifying incomes.

Recipients lined up in the rain before the office opened Friday, the day the department distributed its Thanksgiving baskets, even though Burke had told them there was no need.

"I told people, 'It's not first come, first served. There's something with your name on it,'" she said.

She processed about 100 holiday applications, including one from a man who had applied for 92 jobs. She said other applicants in her office were in tears, saying they used to donate t the program.

"I think people don't have work, they don't have money," she said. "People are in big trouble." About 15 percent of those who applied were new to her.

Volunteers and staff set up tents outside Friday so families could drive past the donation area rather than wait in the rain. Fondulas said the community donated generously, and 29 people volunteered, including several town councilors and city officials.

As cars passed through, volunteers loaded boxes filled with items like potatoes, cereal, stuffing, pasta, gravy mix, applesauce and baked goods.

Applicants also received either a frozen turkey or a voucher to buy one.

Inside, people waiting to pick up baskets packed the lobby as soon as it opened.

"You couldn't move," Schrage said. The crowd had thinned by 10:30 a.m., but a later surge was expected.

Jessica Torres, who works at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London, picked up a basket for herself and her two young sons. She said the food would help her, and she's worried about her job.

"I work in food service and they're looking at 'outsourcing' us," she said.

Hans Swainson, who is retired, said living expenses are just too high.

"Everything is just ridiculous," he said.

Paula Teixeira of Groton, who volunteers each year, said the number of boxes and families always shocks her.

She said she believes people are having to decide between necessities like gasoline and dinner.

"To fill a gas tank is 50 bucks," she said. "That's a lot of money for somebody making minimum wage."

d.straszheim@theday.com

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