Volunteer organizations collecting for Thanksgiving

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If the jobless rate is any indication, the economy is starting to improve for many Valencia County residents.

According to U.S. Labor Department figures, the county’s unemployment rate fell to 7.6 percent, the lowest 12-month average since the recession officially ended in 2009.

Yet, despite the positive countywide employment statistics, more families and older people in the Belen area are seeking help with food to get through the holidays.

Every year the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program collects and screens Thanksgiving basket applications to stop duplications and maximize the number of families the program can help during the Thanksgiving season.

RSVP acts as a clearinghouse for Belen-area organizations that distribute holiday food baskets.

“The application process stops the double- and triple-dippers,” said RSVP Director Bertha Flores.

So far this season, the program has collected nearly 300 applications, the total number it received last year. The increase, Flores said, is attributed to more senior citizens participating in the program compared to years past.

“We are getting a lot more seniors because we are fourth in the nation in hunger,” Flores said of New Mexico. “You have to realize the ones that are mostly hurting are seniors and children, so we are trying to help a little bit with the project.”

Flores said she anticipates the number of people applying for the baskets will continue to rise as area residents begin to feel this month’s mandatory cuts to the federal food stamp program, known as Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program or SNAP.

In other parts of the county, the Los Lunas Fire Department is accepting donations of nonperishable food items. The donated food will be used for Thanksgiving and Christmas day food baskets for distribution on a word-of mouth-basis. Items can be dropped off at the fire department, 465 East Main St. in Los Lunas.

Also, St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Rio Communities will serve Thanksgiving Dinner from noon to 4 p.m. Organizers of the weekly soup kitchen will drive around and pick up those who need rides to the church to enjoy a meal with family and friends.

Residents living within the Belen Consolidated School District have until Wednesday, Nov. 20, to apply for a Thanksgiving food baskets. RSVP volunteers will take applications from 1 to 5 p.m., Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

Applicants must bring identification, proof of income and proof of residency, as well as a birth certificate for every child living in the home.

After the application acceptance window is closed and the applications are evaluated, RSVP volunteers will supply the program’s partner organizations, such as St. Vincent de Paul, with a list of approved applicants. Once the partner organization receives the applications, it will work to fill and deliver the baskets.

St. Vincent de Paul volunteers Manuel and Louisa Rodriguez have passed out holiday food baskets since the early 1970s. Besides seeing the excitement on the children’s faces when they deliver the food, Manuel Rodriguez said he and his wife especially enjoy showing others that people care.

“We know that we are going into the holiday season. I think here at St. Vincent de Paul we give people a certain hope,” Manuel Rodriguez said. “A hope that their families are going to be helped.”

Since moving to the Belen area in 1982, Rodriguez estimates he and the other St. Vincent de Paul volunteers have passed out about 2,000 food baskets during the holiday season.

Residents can help by donating canned goods and other nonperishable items at Belen elementary schools and St. Vincent de Paul, at 10th and Castillo.

The increased need is not just a holiday thing. Volunteers at the Belen Area Food Pantry report that, in the past three years, the number of households seeking assistance has doubled, from 300 to 600 households.