Single mother Katherin Fierro, 29, always worries about providing her five children with necessities such as food, but without money the holidays are tough on her soul.
"I went to school to better myself for my children, but if there’s no work out there, what am I to do?" the Mesa woman said.
East Valley social service agencies say Fierro’s situation is all too common this holiday season. An overwhelming demand for assistance is outweighing the supply of available items. As a result, many families are placed on waiting lists or turned away.
Jason White, an engineer/paramedic with the Chandler Fire Department who has organized the department’s Adopt-AFamily Program for several years, has noticed the trend. He said 1,000 families applied for help this year compared with 460 last year. The city and its partner agencies can’t handle the demand and with 500 families still up for adoption in Chandler alone, they are turning to the public for help.
Virginia Valenciano, program specialist with Maricopa County Head Start, said many families need basics such as clothes, jackets, laundry detergent, personal hygiene items, food and toys for their children.
"This is reality," she said. "We see it every day, but it’s even harder during the holidays."
Tempe Community Action Agency human services specialist Ted Ferris said things are even tougher because fewer people are offering to help and available resources are being taxed.
"We had to stop accepting families so that we wouldn’t be promising someone something and then not be able to help them," Ferris said.
"We are trying to stretch everything to the fullest extent this year because of the increased need."
PREHAB of Arizona, which helps domestic violence victims, the homeless and needy youths, already has provided holiday assistance for 550 people and has a waiting list of 100, said Torrie Taj, director of development.
Maj. Will Cobb of the Salvation Army said 5,300 kids in Mesa were helped last year and there are plans to help 6,000 this year through the Christmas Angel Program, but some families have had to be turned away because the agency already has exceeded the limit for requests for help.
Economist Tracy Clark of the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University believes Arizona’s slow economic recovery and job growth are to blame.
"We know that in percentage terms the number of people who have been badly impacted by the downturn is smaller than in the past, but we also know that the people who were hurt have had a more difficult time getting comparable employment," Clark said. "People were refinancing their homes and other things that kept them going for a while."
Fierro, who graduated from Pima Medical Institute in October, said she has looked for work to improve her family’s plight, but hasn’t been able to find a job.
In Scottsdale, Vista Del Camino human services manager Rita Koppinger said enrollment for the holiday program began in September and usually ends at Thanksgiving, but this year all of the enrollments were done by the second week of October.
"We continue to see people who are struggling due to layoffs and cutbacks in hours and people who just can’t find work that provides a livable wage," she said. "Many jobs just don’t provide enough for a family to live on."
White said people have the opportunity to experience the true meaning of Christmas through giving to others.
"You realize that these are families who wouldn’t have had anything otherwise," he said. "Come feel the gift of giving."
Fierro said Christmas will be tough if her family is not adopted, but she said they are thankful for what they do have.
"My kids and I are really close to each other and we’ll make it through some way," she said. "I just keep having to remind myself that there is someone out there worse off than I am. The good thing is my kids don’t ask for much. They know in their hearts that mom doesn’t have it. My 9-year-old son, Victor, even says, ‘Mom, that’s okay if you can’t get us anything because Santa will bring us something.’ "
You can help
• To help in Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa or Tempe through the Maricopa County Head Start program, call Virginia Valenciano by Friday at (480) 464-9669, Ext. 229.
• To help in Tempe through the Tempe Community Action Agency, call (480) 350-5880
• To help in Scottsdale through Vista Del Camino, call (480) 312-2323
• To help someone through PREHAB, go to www.prehab.org, call (480) 464-4648 or mail store gift cards to: PREHAB HOLIDAY GIVING PROGRAM, P.O. BOX 5860, Mesa 85211-5860
• To help a child through the Salvation Army, visit the Superstition Springs Mall, Chandler Fashion Center, Arizona Mills, Fiesta Mall, Scottsdale Fashion Square or the Apache Junction Wal-Mart to take an angel from the Angel Tree or call (480) 962-9103
Other agencies: Valleywide: St. Vincent de Paul Society, (602) 254-3338; Paz de Cristo Community Center, Mesa, (480) 464-2370.