These days, it seems, each of us knows someone who needs a helping hand. Fortunately, local communities are willing to reach out and help.
Hotchkiss K-8 School Principal Carrie Yantzer strives to teach her students about giving through hands-on experiences. For the last 10 years, Hotchkiss K-8's Helping Hands program has provided food and other assistance for students and their families who need a helping hand.
K-8 shop teacher Harold Burch coordinates the program. Each Friday throughout the school year, participating students receive a bag with enough food for breakfast and lunch for the weekend. Bags are returned on Mondays and the process starts over.
Last year, said Carrie, the weekend program benefited 62 students.
Helping Hands also offers the Holiday Food Box program. The idea, said Carrie, is to provide enough food for two meals per day per family. Recently, about 15 students, teachers and administrators and members of the community spent Sunday afternoon, December 13, preparing and delivering more than 40 holiday food boxes. Volunteers, many of them die-hard Broncos fans, gave up watching the Broncos-Raiders game to lend a hand or provide a delivery vehicle. Carrie said a strict rule prohibits talking about the game or, for those following it on their iPhones, giving away the score.
Each box includes a frozen turkey, a bag of potatoes and fresh fruit, and all of the fixings for a traditional Christmas dinner. Depending on the needs of the family, boxes can also include ground beef or eggs, and breakfast and lunch items including cereal, pancake mix and syrup, bread, peanut butter, jelly, juice and more.
Families sign up for the program in advance. Because it targets students, the school has more control over who benefits and can customize boxes according to the family's specific needs. Depending on those needs, boxes might include a City Market gift card or toys. With three families with five members and three families of seven on this year's list, sometimes they need a big box.
Boxes are delivered a week before break begins, and extra food is set aside. That way, if a student hears about the program before break, there is still time to put a box together.
Before school break began, 43 food boxes had been delivered as far away as Paonia, Delta, Crawford and Eckert. The program isn't limited to students and their families. At least one delivery went to a disabled couple. "I don't care if you're a family of one, or a family of 10," said Carrie. Our motto is: 'At some point in everybody's life, all of us need a helping hand.' "
If any items are in short supply, City Market is just across the highway. The program has funds to fill in the gaps, thanks to tremendous financial support from the community, said Carrie.
The entire program is based on donations, and the list of donors could rival Santa's list of good boys and girls. This year, Paonia Church of Christ, in which K-8 teacher and volunteer Tucker Moore is a member, donated 40 turkeys to the holiday program, Stirrup Bar Ranch in Crawford donated ground beef, and Justin and Page Johns donated toys.
Hotchkiss High School students collected 989 non-perishable items through a recent food drive, and K-8 students collected almost 2,000 non-perishable items.
We always tell the kids, "Give if you can give," said Carrie. "It's service above self."
Carrie grew up on the Front Range and was exposed to the concept of service at an early age. Her aunt, Ellen Torres, started the Bienvenidos Food Bank 35 years ago. The non-profit, one of the biggest food banks in the Denver-Metro area, currently provides emergency food assistance to between 600-900 people a week, according to its website. That takes a lot of work.
Torres passed away in 2001. Carrie's cousin, Martina Torres, remains on the board of directors, and her mother, Teresa Vendegna, remained very active in the food bank until her death 10 years ago. Carrie said her family does what it can from here. Each Thanksgiving, she and daughters Mae and Natalie, both of whom volunteer with Helping Hands, travel to Denver to serve meals at a Denver shelter.
After Carrie's mother's death, students raised money to plant a tree in her honor, but she requested that they consider making a donation to the food bank in her name. Students embraced the idea, and after realizing there was sufficient need to provide food locally, the effort snowballed and Helping Hands was born.
The first year the program provided just the holiday meal, but it quickly grew to include the weekend food bag program. Today, Helping Hands is a K-12 and community-wide effort.
Fifth-grade teacher Chuck Miller and wife Amy, a teacher at HHS, involve their entire family in Helping Hands. Morgan Miller, now 15, started volunteering at the K-8 school through the National Junior Honors Society. "That organization is all about giving back to your community," said Miller. "When I heard about this, I thought it was a really good time to give back."
Today, "It's just kind of a family thing," said Miller.
In recent years her family started delivering boxes to homes. "I like seeing the looks on peoples' faces when we bring them their food," she said. "I just think that all of this work that everyone's put into it is paying off in the end when you get to see the expressions on their faces."
Miller said she plans to continue with the program through high school.
Carrie said that beneficiaries often become benefactors. Last year, a family that had been in the program for several years no longer needed help and brought in a dozen plates of homemade cookies to place in the holiday boxes. It was their way of saying thank you, said Carrie.
While this year's holiday boxes were being packed, one family picked theirs up. Since it wasn't ready, they went through the tables of items and picked out what they wanted. The mother started to cry when she saw all she was going to take home, said Yantzer. "That's what makes it worthwhile."
The program benefits from other non-profits, including the Food Bank of the Rockies, which allows Helping Hands to purchase pallets of food at affordable prices. The school shares its bounty with other organizations, including the Hotchkiss Elks emergency food pantry and the North Fork Ministerial Association Food Pantry at Paonia Christian Fellowship.
The Holiday Box program also complements the many other holiday programs in the area, including the North Fork Children's Christmas Party, Elks Christmas food baskets, and the community Christmas dinner, held Christmas day at the Hotchkiss Senior Center.
"That all of these things come from such a small community is great," said Yantzer. "It's service beyond self."
"This is a community that cares," said Hotchkiss mayor Wendell Koontz, who has volunteered with the holiday program the last couple of years and was among the Broncos fans missing the game. The Town of Hotchkiss also gives an annual donation to the program. "The town motto, 'The friendliest town around,' isn't just a motto," said Koontz, who was busy packing boxes. "These people live it."
Sometimes the road is a little bumpy. At the start of this school year, said Carrie, Helping Hands lacked start-up funds and students were beginning to ask about the bags. Student Council and co-presidents Grey Neal and JD Miller raised $1,200 through their Mounds of Money program, and The Cocker Kids Foundation provided grant money to get the program going again.
Last week, First Colorado National Bank gave Helping Hands a matching donation of $1,271 for its food drive efforts. Paonia Elementary School students, who collected food for the Paonia food pantry, also received a donation, said bank representative Christy Harding.
Money will help support the weekly food bag program. "This is going to be tremendous to help with that program," Carrie told Harding and bank president Stan Park as students presented them with oversized "thank you" cards for the big check. "We are eternally grateful."