Friday, December 26, 2008

A year of less brings more

The contributions came from near and far.
One local couple, who wished to remain anonymous, gave $10,000. Others -- some who gave their names and some who didn’t -- gave $1,000 or more.
Many people, honoring loved ones living or lost ones living only in memory, gave $10s, $20s, and $100s.
Gifts came in cash, in change and in checks. They were accompanied by notes, cards and preceded by phone calls asking if they could do something more specific than their monetary gifts.
This year’s Operation Holiday was phenomenal in scope and need. The stories of families beset by illness, loss of jobs, and increasing costs of food and fuel were poignant and often heartbreaking.
Contributors made it also phenomenal in money raised. In a year when everyone’s budgets are being stretched thin, many, many local people found room in their hearts to help those less fortunate and dug deeper to give more.
Operation Holiday this year raised $58,123.20, an amount that exceeded by far last year’s total of just over $44,000 and was the highest amount of the past five years.
In this year, when businesses, government agencies, and nonprofits are struggling to balance their budgets, Operation Holiday had one of its strongest years in memory.
The difference perhaps is that Operation Holiday is not a charity -- it is instead an experience of neighbors helping their neighbors. And so, when neighbors are most in need, those who still have a little left over give generously.
The Mercury has never set a goal for Operation Holiday, but has raised between $40,000 and $70,000 every year since its inception in 1991. Every penny raised goes to help local families with children. The program from identifying families to recordkeeping to food ordering and purchasing of the gift cards is handled by employees of The Mercury, their families, and volunteers.
Employees of local service agencies -- case workers, Head Start classroom teachers, and others -- assist with identifying families and distributing food and gifts. School volunteers help with packing; Mercury drivers man the delivery vans.
This year, food and gift cards were delivered to 151 families with 416 children. Boscov’s stores provided a generous discount allowing the gift dollars to go further, and Weis Markets donated managers’ time and dollars along with delivering the food.
Behind the scenes of the Operation Holiday stories of need and photos of food being packed in Mercury vans are the stories told in notes received, both from those who give and those who receive.
“We read the Operation Holiday stories ... and try to teach our daughter to help those less fortunate,” wrote a family in a card sent with their gift. “When we emptied her piggy bank, she wanted to contribute half to the fund. We also wanted to match her contribution.”
“I no longer work in Pottstown but want to do something cause I have many memories tied to the area,” wrote another.
“Thank you for all your hard work in this huge operation ... Happy holidays to all!” wrote another.
Some have asked that their donations be earmarked for the boy whose piggybank was stolen, or the mother whose family lost belongings in a fire, or the woman evicted from her apartment after losing her ability to work due to a crash injury, or the young father suffering from cancer and unable to buy gifts for his daughters.
These requests were honored with specific Operation Holiday distributions.
Cards and letters are also received from those who appreciate the help of Operation Holiday.
“We appreciate the help as this year has been a difficult one for us. I can not wait to see the children’s smiles,” wrote one mother.
“The food and gift card will help us so much this year,” wrote another. “We appreciate all that you do for us.”
Several families this year discovered they were on the Operation Holiday list in duplicate under different relatives’ names. Both returned the gift cards and food to be redistributed to other needy families on a waiting list rather than keep the extras.
The joy in giving and humility in receiving were felt in abundance in this difficult year.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Of libraries, Lower Pottsgrove and newspapers

At a time when many are questioning the future and the value of community newspapers, a local answer to those questions unfolded last week in Lower Pottsgrove Township.
The township commissioners reversed themselves and amended a decision to cut funding in half to the Pottstown Public Library. Commissioners announced they would restore the $60,000 annual contribution to the library in response to concerns of township residents that the allocation was being cut.
The commissioners were able to maintain their budget plans of no tax hike in 2009 but give the library the second half of its allocation in January to keep the township share at $60,000.
Commissioner Jonathan Spadt said the board received unprecedented feedback from residents once word got out that the library contribution was being cut.
“We’ve never had the type of feedback and the volume of feedback,” he said during last week’s meeting.
Board members had put together a preliminary budget for next year that cut in half several annual contributions to a handful of non-profit organizations, such as the Visiting Nurses Association and Lower Pottsgrove Historical Society.
Board members said that until people voiced their concerns, they had little understanding about just how popular the library is with residents.
“The kids who I saw at the high school level, who said they use the library ... I knew I was changing my mind,” Commissioner Stephen Klotz said.
“Restoring this is one of the best things we’ve done all year,” Commissioner Tony Doyle said.
The feedback received by commissioners and their decision to restore funding came about because people let them know what was important -- but how would the people of the township have known what was being cut without the reporting of the local newspaper?
The proposed cut was included in a meeting report on the front page of The Mercury, followed by editorial opinion and then by letters to the editor,including a published statement from the Pottsgrove School Board about the value of a public library.
The importance to communities of the information and perspective offered by newspapers was illustrated by the Lower Pottsgrove reaction.
Townships and school districts will point to newsletters and Web sites as a means of communicating with residents, but it's not the same. A township Web site is there when you care to check it out; a newspaper is in front of you on the newsstand or your doorstep alerting you to the news of your town. You don't have to know something is important enough to seek out information; a newspaper gives the information and then tells why it's important.
Without newspapers, the news of a community will not be told quickly, openly or completely. A cut in library funding would occur unnoticed. And, the reversal happily accomplished last week by the Lower Pottsgrove commissioners would not have occurred.
Libraries and Lower Pottsgrove are an example of why newspapers matter.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

New avenue of opinions opens

Many of the sacred rules of newspapers have fallen in recent years.
Advertising on the front page, once considered taboo in the publisher's office as well as at the editor's desk, is now commonplace. An innovative ad program showing up in many newspapers even folds over a section of the front-page with coupons. Others have Post-it notes covering parts of the main headline or the newspaper's nameplate.
The trend has gone the other way, too. Information once considered the sole domain of the newsroom -- obituaries, wedding announcements, anniversary celebrations -- are now treated as paid advertising allowing families to select their own words and determine how much or how little to say about a loved one.
Beginning Monday, another spot once considered off-limits to advertisers will be available. The Mercury will offer a block on the Opinion page for op-ed advertising.
As with obituaries, the Op-ed advertising program allows a person to say something they want to say in more words or with more frequency than our editorial space would allow. The paid opinion pieces will not replace free letters to the editor, and like letters, rules of libel and decency will be enforced. But, if a person has more to say than our rules of one-letter-per-month allow, this program gives an alternative.
The idea was brought to us by former Mercury editorial writer Tom Hylton, whose opinions about matters in town can arrive with more flair and frequency than the average Readers' View writer.
Hylton has a history with this newspaper, having won a Pulitzer prize in editorial writing during his years here, and many in town identify him with The Mercury, even though we have been on opposite sides of the street since 1994.
His opinions do not represent the opinions of this newspaper. We may agree just as readily as we may disagree. In fact, the notion to provide a forum for paid advertising on the Opinion page underscores the point that those opinions are an individual's or an organization's viewpoint, not necessarily the view of the newspaper's editorial board.
Just like with a paid obituary, the paid Opinion piece gives writers an opportunity to say something in their own words unaltered by our editors.
The pieces which will appear in this space may be controversial, and they may spark some heightened public debate. This is in our view the mission of any newspaper Opinion page, and we welcome the opportunity to raise awareness and increase an enlivened dialogue about local issues.
This advertising option is available to people who want to write opinion pieces above and beyond what our letters policy allows, or to endorse local candidates or issues beyond our policy of refusing political endorsements as letters.
The program has rules and guidelines, like any advertising option. The parameters may evolve over time.
But, be assured, the coming of paid advertisements on the Opinion page is not the first step to charging for letters to the editor. These opinions are additions, not replacements for the opportunity we offer our readers in SoundOff and Readers' Views to have your say.
Another avenue for voices is open. Watch for it; read, and become informed.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Requests for help match generous donations

At the end of the first week of Operation Holiday, both the need and the response have been great.
The fund has collected more than $16,000, including a $10,000 anonymous contribution, and gift cards and food have been ordered to serve 151 local families and 416 children.
The emphasis that this is a difficult economic year for many is borne out by the requests coming in daily for Operation Holiday aid, above and beyond the families that have already been referred.
A woman in the Owen J. Roberts area writes to describe how a car accident involving a drunk driver has left her without a car or ability to pay her bills.
The loss of income over months due to injuries has led to unpaid bills, and on Monday she was evicted from her apartment. She is a trained nurse and a single mother of two children, working hard to get back on her feet. But, in the meantime, life has gotten in the way.
A Phoenixville area man can not work as he battles a severe form of cancer. His wife works to make ends meet, and his daughters help out around the house, but the cost of treatment that is not covered by insurance and the incidentals of travel to appointments and other necessities has depleted the family finances. The choices come down to buying food, paying the mortgage, or paying for medicine with nothing left over for holiday gifts.
A woman in Pottstown is seeking help for a close friend who is a single mother of two children. The youngest, a baby, was born prematurely with serious health issues that required long hospitalizations in Philadelphia and other critical demands. The young mother works, but struggles to care for the baby and afford day care for her older child. Gifts for the holidays are the least of her concerns.
These stories are being matched by equally touching donations from area readers. Many are sending checks for $25, $50, $100, $300, even while they deal with their own misfortunes and financial insecurity. Some families have reduced their gift-buying this year and substituted donations to those more needy.
The Pottstown area is home to many kindhearted and generous people. When their neighbors struggle, they reach out to help.
And, Operation Holiday is the best example of this community’s desire to help its own. All the money donated is distributed to area families. There is no overhead, and there is no handoff of funds to other social service agencies. The strength of this program is that every dollar sent goes to help a neighbor in need.
This year, the program is dealing with an abundance of both generosity and need, of neighbors helping neighbors.
The Mercury thanks our readers for your part in helping us help those less fortunate.

Operation Holiday is funded solely by readers’ contributions. The names of all those who contribute except those who wish to remain anonymous will be printed in The Mercury between now and Dec. 24. All contributions are tax deductible. Contributions may be mailed or brought to the offices of The Mercury, P.O. Box 484, Pottstown PA 19464. Make checks payable to Operation Holiday.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A gift of giving

This is a difficult year for many, but ironically, when times are tough, thoughts often turn to helping others.
Or, maybe it's not ironic at all.
The closer we come to losing our security, the more we count the blessings that remain.
Perhaps this is not a year to spend $1,000 on a new TV, but we can give $25 to help a needy child or to find a cure for cancer or to buy food for a homeless person or heat for an elderly shut-in or help a woman find safety from an abusive relationship.
My top 10 Christmas gift list is my top 10 charity causes.
Because in giving, we receive, and in compassion we find hope.

1. Operation Holiday to buy food and gifts for needy children. P.O. Box 484, Pottstown PA 19464. This is The Mercury's program and will serve 151 families and 416 children of the Pottstown area this year.
2. Pottstown Relay for Life c/0 Linda Rudolph, Diamond Federal Credit Union, 1600 Medical Drive, Pottstown PA 19464
3. The church of your choice
4. Pottstown Cluster of Religious Communities fund to help people pay for heating oil, 137 Walnut St., Pottstown PA 19464
5. Ministries at Main Street help for the homeless program,
6. American Cancer Society memorial contributions, c/o Joan Gehris, National Penn Bank, 1830 E. High St., Pottstown, PA 19464
7. Women's Center of Montgomery County, 555 High St., Pottstown PA 19464 to offer support to women escaping domestic violence
8. Pottstown Long Term Relief Committee, Susquehanna Bank, 159 E. High St., Pottstown PA 19464 for victims of fires and natural disasters in the area
9. North Coventry Food Pantry, 148 W. Main St., Pottstown PA 19464 offering food to the needy
10. Community Housing Service Inc., 311 N. Broad St., Lansdale PA 19446 for STEPS program in Pottstown area helping victims of domestic violence start a new life.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Generous start to Operation Holiday

Mercury publisher Tom Abbott invited me to join him last week at a joint meeting of the Pottstown Kiwanis and Rotary clubs to give a presentation on Operation Holiday, our program to help needy children.
Tom told me he remembered a line from a college marketing professor who said clubs and civic organizations are often the driving force in a community, the glue that holds a town together and gets things done. He said he was reminded of that theory in practice when he came to Pottstown.
I occasionally get asked to speak to service groups, most recently the Mahanatawny chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, but I am not a regular on the clubs scene. I like to remind people that I started my career at The Mercury writing gown descriptions of women who planned and attended the society balls and auxiliary dances back in the day. I am well aware that there are many organizations in our town focusing on fund-raising and community causes as the order of business.
The Kiwanis and Rotary groups greeted us warmly and listened attentively while we described the workings of Operation Holiday. I was here in 1991 when former publisher Barry Hopwood brought this program to Pottstown, and I recounted the history of the first year's lessons and how the program has evolved over the years.
I explained our commitment at The Mercury to keeping the program for children and our efforts to serve families who have fallen on hard times because of loss of a job, illness or trying circumstances.
We described the effort that goes into the project from The Mercury employees. Many newspapers raise money for holiday efforts that help people in their communities, but they are more often programs where the money raised is then handed off to the Salvation Army or a separate organization to give out. Operation Holiday is different. Employees of the newspaper in partnership with local service agencies find families in need, keep track of the donations, order the food from a local market, pack the boxes, buy the gift certificates, and distribute them with the help of the agencies who refer families.
We even buy and assemble the cardboard boxes that hold the food.
The program's success hinges on managers keeping accurate and careful records of lists of both those who give and those who receive. Our bookkeeping is handled by our business office in a separate Operation Holiday Foundation nonprofit account. Staff writers contact, interview and write the compelling stories of need from people on the lists. And, our readers give generously, telling us time and again that their reward in giving is as great as the joy we see in the eyes of those who receive.
When I was finished telling this story, an amazing thing happened.
First, the Kiwanis and Rotary clubs each presented us with checks for $250 each to kick off the fundraising for this year. Then, individuals from the group approached us, pressing personal checks, cash and warm wishes upon us. By the end of the evening, we had $1,270 to start this year's fundraising.
The generous gifts were offered with a genuine appreciation for this program, now in its 18th year, and I left humbled with the honor of being a part of it. These two civic groups reminded me of the power of community giving.
As we begin this year's Operation Holiday campaign to provide food to 151 families of the Pottstown area and gifts to 414 children, the donations of the Pottstown Kiwanis and Rotary clubs provided us with a good head start.
We thank you.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Rocky start to happiest season of the year

Holiday songs proclaim the Christmas-Hanukkah season as the best, happiest, loveliest time of the year with thoughts of peace, goodwill and love among people.
So, what happened on the day after Thanksgiving when frenzied shoppers pushed, shoved, honked and grabbed their way to bargains, turning the traditional first day of the holidays into a mean-spirited display of greed and materialism?
The headlines on this year’s Black Friday were expected to foretell a soft start to the shopping season as the nation’s woeful economy put a damper on Christmas lists.
Instead, the headlines reflected violence among people anxious for a bargain.
The holiday buying frenzy turned deadly at both a Wal-Mart store in Valley Stream, N.Y., and a Toys “R’’ Us store in Palm Desert, Calif.
A temporary Wal-Mart worker died after a throng of unruly shoppers broke down the doors and trampled him moments after the store opened early Friday, police said.
Other workers were trampled as they tried to rescue the man, and customers shouted angrily and kept shopping when store officials said they were closing because of the death, police and witnesses said.
At least four other people, including a woman who was eight months pregnant, were taken to hospitals for observation or minor injuries, and the store in Valley Stream on Long Island closed for several hours before reopening.
Shoppers stepped over the man on the ground and streamed into the store. When told to leave, they complained that they had been in line since Thursday morning.
Nassau County police said about 2,000 people were gathered outside the Wal-Mart store doors at the mall about 20 miles east of Manhattan. The impatient crowd knocked the man to the ground as he opened the doors about 5 a.m., leaving a metal portion of the frame crumpled like an accordion.
Nassau police spokesman Lt. Michael Fleming described the scene as “utter chaos.” Wal-Mart Stores Inc. in Bentonville, Ark., called the incident a “tragic situation” and said the employee came from a temporary agency and was doing maintenance work at the store.
A shooting inside a Toys “R’’ Us in California killed two people, authorities said, though it was not clear whether it involved any shopping frenzy. The shooting reportedly occurred after two women with two men began arguing which then escalated into a bloody brawl, witnesses said. The shots were fired by the two men.
Elsewhere at malls and stores, it was the usual hectic start of the season, as crowds of shoppers frantically picked through piles of discounted merchandise.
Locally, shoppers went out at midnight after Thanksgiving dinner for an early opening at Philadelphia Premijm Outlets in Limerick.
Cars were reportedly lined up on Route 422 in both directions late Thursday night, and every parking space was filled in the outlets’ massive lots by midnight.
Others rose by 4 or 5 a.m. for early openings at malls, department stores and discount stores. By the end of the day, stores looked like they’d been ransacked. Merchandise was strewn helter-skelter on floors, off shelves and throughout the stores.
The traditional start of the holiday shopping season seems to arrive earlier each year, but this year it also got nastier.
The violence and lack of human decency in that Long Island Wal-Mart and California Toys “R” Us was a tragic commentary on the human condition.
So much for peace and good will in “the happiest season of all.”