By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Havre firefighters will be busy Tuesday and Wednesday. So will a host of volunteers working with them.
Their effort will not involve firefighting or other emergency services. For about the eighth straight year, the department will hold the Everybody Loves Firefighters food drive, escorting volunteers as they go door-to-door collecting nonperishable food items for the Havre Food Bank and the Salvation Army.
"As a single donation, it is the largest we have," said Don Bleak, manager of the food bank.
Volunteers will gather at the Havre Fire Department Tuesday and Wednesday evening to be divided into teams that will go on routes through the city. Flashing emergency lights on firetrucks and ambulances will annouce their arrival as they knock on doors and ask for donations.
Bleak said they will cover half of Havre each night.
He added it's important for anyone who volunteers to be at the Fire Department by 5:30 p.m., so the group can begin the ELF food drive at 6 p.m. sharp.
Havre Fire Chief Dave Sheppard said having the firefighters and emergency vehicles along seems to help remind people the food drive is happening.
"The majority of people are really generous," he said.
He said five emergency vehicles and 10 to 12 firefighters will be on the drive each night.
Bleak said the drive needs a lot of volunteers, and that he is still looking for more.
In most years, many of the volunteers come from youth groups, and adult supervision is needed, he said. The firefighters are mainly on the drive for visibility, and the volunteers collect most of the food. The firefighters also might be called away to deal with emergencies.
"We don't want some kids out there with no adult supervision," Bleak said. "Especially the younger children, who love to do this."
Adults with vans and pickups are also needed. Bleak said private vehicles carry the food to keep the emergency vehicles free.
"Chase vehicles" are used to periodically pick up the food and take it to the collection point at Van Orsdel United Methodist Church. Other volunteers are needed to sort the food at the church, Bleak said.
"It's pretty labor-intensive," he said.
The food is needed, he said. Demand for food seems to be going up, and while food donations have been coming in fairly well this fall, cash donations are getting smaller, he said.
Most people want their cash donations to go to food, he added, but the food bank's biggest need for cash is to pay expenses like electricity.
Bleak said the increased need for food has several causes. The Salvation Army started giving out fewer food boxes so it could concentrate on helping people with other expenses. The food bank started giving out food boxes every other month, instead of every three months, to help make up for that, and the number of people needing food has increased.
Some of the reasons for that seem to be increasing unemployment and underemployment, and because of cuts in Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, Bleak said.
The TANF cuts have definitely increased people's need, he said.
Hank Hudson of the state Department of Health and Human Services said the cuts in TANF happened because of an increasing caseload over the summer. DPHHS received the same amount of money from the federal government for the program, but had to split it among more people, he said.
As of August, he said, the typical impact on a family of three was a drop from $505 a month to $375 a month, offset for some families by a slight increase in food stamps or housing aid.
Last year's collection during ELF was lower than it had been, about 1,100 pounds compared with a record 4,800 pounds in 2001.
Bleak said that was probably because the organizers tried something new. They held the drive on a Saturday morning and afternoon instead of doing it on two weeknights. That meant fewer firefighters were available, because some had commitments out of town, and fewer people seemed to be at home, Bleak said.
Doing the drive at night also makes the flashing lights more visible, he said.
For more information or to volunteer, call the Havre Food Bank at 265-2007 or Bleak at home at 265-1056.