Holidays come early for hundreds in need

More than 450 people lined up Tuesday night outside Macon’s Christ Episcopal Church downtown to receive a free meal, clothes, toiletries and children’s toys at the annual Mentors Project Christmas event.

The crowd, the largest in the event’s nine-year history, reflected an ever-varying melting pot of midstate residents who are feeling the impact of the tough economy and worsening job market — part-time employees, large families, teenagers caring for young siblings, college students, senior citizens and the homeless, who rely on help from others that is increasingly sparse.

Throughout the Walnut Street church, volunteers manned charity stations, passing out bowls of soup and sandwiches in a large auditorium and donated women’s and men’s clothing and toys for kids in three smaller back areas.

June O’Neal, who organized the event this year, worked a moving line where adults waited to take a bag with two blankets, a flashlight and thermos, hats and gloves, fruit and other items to make do in the cold.

By about 6 p.m., with an hour left to go, O’Neal had given away all there was to give — after separating the bags into smaller parcels and pulling from a box of donated goods not intended for Tuesday night.

“We have never run out this early. We’ve had about 150 more people this year,” she said. “What this means is more unemployed and more people who work but have had their hours cut back. We were lucky to give what we could. We just always pray that stuff will multiply.”

Teresa Brown walked from her home on West Napier Avenue to downtown Tuesday, pushing her neighbor’s 5-month-old daughter, Nada, in a stroller.

She said she learned of the meal earlier in the day while picking up free diapers at the Loaves & Fishes ministry center near the corner of Plum Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard.

Unemployed for about a month, Brown, 49, said she makes ends meet by babysitting Nada and donating blood plasma. She said she’s confident she will find better work soon.

“Of course you hear all the news about how bad things are. But I don’t get frustrated. God is in control,” Brown said.

“I look at tonight, it’s a blessing. People should appreciate it.”

Jamal Jenkins, a freshman at Northeast High School, stood in line with his three sisters — a 9-year-old and two teenagers.

“We came down here for the toys but we might eat,” he said.

Jenkins said his mother had warned the siblings this year would be a lighter Christmas. When he saw the event advertised on television, he suggested he and his sisters show up.

“We don’t mind waiting in line,” he said.

Rachel May, 28, helped pass out stacks of five clothing pieces to men, who she said mostly asked for sweaters and pants.

The Mercer University employee said she was invited by a friend to volunteer this year.

“I think it’s important during the holiday season to think about the reason for the season,” May said. “It’s not gift giving and materialism. It’s giving back to the community and caring for the most in need.”

O’Neal said volunteers served about 60 gallons of vegetable soup and more than 1,000 sandwiches. Volunteers represented the Loaves & Fishes Board and affiliated churches, The Mentors Project, Christ Episcopal Church, Volunteer Macon, The Georgia Academy for the Blind, Ingleside Baptist Church, Martha Bowman United Methodist Church, The Macon Chapter of The Links Inc., The Middle Georgia Community Food Bank, The Macon Coalition to End Homelessness, the Maggie Bear Project, the Blue Knights Law Enforcement Motorcycle Club Chapter 12 and G-Ryderz Motorcycle Club.

To contact writer Ashley Tusan Joyner, call 744-4347.