POTTSTOWN — If you wanted to quantify the impact Operation Holiday has had over its 30 years of operation, the numbers would be a good place to start.
For those unfamiliar, each year, Operation Holiday collects donations from its readers to provides needy families with all the fixings for a holiday meal and $75 gift cards for each child.
Given that we help between 150 to 200 families, with 500 to 600 kids, every year, things really add up.
In 30 years, your donations and a battalion of volunteers have helped somewhere between 4,500 and 6,000 families, meaning we’ve helped make happier holidays for somewhere between 15,000 to 18,000 children.
It means together, we’ve provided $450,000 in food over 30 years and between $1.1 million and $1.3 million worth of gift cards and actual gifts.
“Frankly, we are amazed every year at the generosity of our readers,” said Nancy March, former editor of The Mercury, who has remained involved in organizing Operation Holiday every year and came out of retirement last year to be named editor of The Reporter in Lansdale.
Last year, Operation Holiday was expanded beyond The Mercury to reach families in the regions served by two more MediaNews Group newspapers, The Reporter and The Times Herald in Norristown.
This year, more Chester County families served by another MediaNews Group paper, The Daily Local News, will be included as well.
“It’s truly an amazing partnership between The Mercury and the community for all these years,” said Shelley Meenan, general manager for MediaNews Group. “The fact that it’s all run by volunteers and every single dollar donated goes into the meals and the gift cards means it is truly in the giving spirit of the holiday.
“We have been fortunate to be able to expand the past couple of years from what we have learned to be able to reach more families throughout Montgomery and Chester,” Meenan said. “And this year, with so many more needs in our communities, we are so thankful for our readers and the opportunity to help.”
Each year, it all begins with about a dozen agencies in the region that identify truly needy families. Some of those families are interviewed by our reporters who tell their stories, and they are published every day in the papers between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
To protect their privacy, the names of the families are changed, although Margaret Bauer, an income maintenance casework supervisor for the Montgomery County Assistance Office in Pottstown, says she can usually recognize the families she has recommended.
She spends all year helping needy families and gets to know them pretty well.
But once a year Bauer gets to be one of Santa’s helpers in a very real way. She is among the handful of elves at social service agencies and school districts who help select the neediest families for our holiday list.
“It’s a wonderful thing, it really is,” Bauer said.
“After all, we are the agency of last resort for struggling families, many of whom are on Medicaid and food stamps, and when they come in to pick up their food and gift cards, a lot of them just can’t believe it,” said Bauer.
Sue Grashof, school counselor at North Coventry Elementary School, says she gets to see the value of Operation Holiday every year when she sees the families that have been helped.
“There have been so many over the years,” when asked if there is a family that stands out in her mind.
“There’s a single mom who has one child who is disabled and a toddler, and she was in an accident,” Grashof. “She has been out of work and getting operations trying to get back to where she was physically.
Asked how long ago that was, she said “that’s this year.”
Grashof puts the call out to Owen J. Roberts principals, asking them to recommend families “but honestly, most of the families in the district at the lower end of the economic scale are here in North Coventry.”
And when those families come to pick up their holiday food and gift cards, “some of them are completely blown away,” she said.
Holly Lee, a counselor with the Pottstown School District, said she usually starts with the families that have the most children when putting together her list.
“The larger families are usually the most in need,” said Lee, who has lost track of how many years she has helped coordinate Operation Holiday’s outreach to district families. “I see such incredible gratitude on their faces.”
The gratitude comes from having almost nothing at the holidays.
“I remember one single mom, she was living in her car with her son, they were really, really struggling,” said Lee. “I got her into a shelter, got her in a jobs program and she got a job and five years later, she still has that job. That was a family I was happy to help.”
After a pause, Lee added “but I think my favorite was about 10 years ago. It was a single mom with a younger one in first or second grade and after she picked up the gift cards and bought the presents, he walked in on her wrapping them.”
Already accustomed to spare holiday offerings, “his eyes got all big and he said ‘Mom, where did all this come from?'” Lee said.
The short answer to that question is — “everybody.”
“Mom told his teacher and the teacher told me,” said Lee. “I still think about it every year.”
There is another way Pottstown School District lends a hand every year. Every year, perhaps all the way back to the very first, Pottstown High School students show up on packing day.
“Packing Day” is when it all comes together.
That’s when the food purchased by reader donations is organized along a portable assembly line and volunteers assign themselves a station at each item. As the boxes make their way down the rollers, each item is added to the box.
In addition to a holiday ham, it includes pasta, rice, bread, eggs, peanut butter and jelly, canned vegetables and more.
Student participation is organized through the high school’s student government, and John Armato, director of community relations for the Pottstown School District, said many of those lending a hand may also have been recipients of Operation Holiday, or known families who are.
“It’s a small town and there is a lot of shared experience,” he said. “Listen, our student body is 70 percent identified as being eligible for free and reduced lunch,” he said, “We get it.”
“I really enjoy doing it, being on the assembly line with the kids,” said Armato, who shows up every year to help (and take photos to feed his burgeoning social media following.)
“It’s really a positive feeling, one of camaraderie, of being united in a common goal and knowing that our kids played a real role every time,” Armato said.
That packing does not happen in a vacuum. It happens thanks to lots of behind the scenes organizing by people like March, Customer Experience Manager Cindy Levan, Controller Patti Paul and Circulation Manager Greg Yergey.
Before retiring from The Mercury last year, newsroom assistant Sue Klaus was for many years the liaison with agencies, building the list of Operation Holiday families and arranging pickup of gift cards. Former maintenance supervisor Bob Morris led the food packing and delivery effort.
About 10 years ago, Yergey was “recruited” by Morris to help with the set-up and break down for Operation Holiday’s packing day.
“My Operation Holiday day starts about 5 a.m. on delivery day, and ends about 3 p.m.,” said Yergey, who, beforehand, has been up all night overseeing delivery of the papers.
Yergey has to drive the company forklift through the quiet streets of a sleeping Pottstown over to Goodwill Fire Company, where the packing has taken place ever since The Mercury building at King and Hanover streets was closed and sold.
“My daughter drives behind me with her flashers on,” Yergey said with a laugh. “The really interesting part is driving back at 3 p.m. That’s when I usually ask a Pottstown Police officer to accompany me.”
The food is delivered by Weis Markets at about 6:30 a.m. by which time, the movable assembly line mechanism has been assembled. As the boxes are put together, the food is organized into stations in an order that allows the two boxes of food each family receives to be packed in the proper order.
After packing is done and most of the volunteers go home, employees like Paul and Business Development Manager Steve Batten begin delivering the food boxes to the agencies where the families will pick them up.
“Then we break everything down and clean up,” Yergey said. “Goodwill is nice enough to let us use their space, so we want to be sure we leave it as good as we found it.”
Despite the extra work, Yergey said “it’s something I look forward to every year, really. It’s great to be part of something that does so much good.
Due to CDC and Pennsylvania guidance on group gatherings, the food packing operation was canceled this year. Gift cards for $120 in food will be provided to families, and cash donations will be made to food pantries that serve the clients of Operation Holiday to stock shelves in January and February.