Five ways to help this holiday season

For most of us, the holidays bring up nostalgic memories of happier times in our lives – scourging a local tree farm for the perfect tree, baking dozens of cookies weeks in advance, only for them to be devoured just days later, and that excited feeling of anticipation when shopping for loved ones in crowded malls and shops.

It's marked as the most “wonderful time” of year when gratefulness, good cheer and the act of giving is engrained in our thoughts. But the giving is not always reflected in our actions. With the climax of the holiday season just a week away, the final push to make a difference in someone's life is important as ever.

But it’s not a wonderful time of the year for everyone. Though Cleveland has many positive attributes, it still has social problems that linger in the every day lives of our fellow Clevelanders. With the issues of poverty, homelessness among veterans and families, and the rising issue of food insecurity, there are many local organizations trying to make the lives of those struggling a bit brighter.

This holiday season, as it should be with any day, is one of giving and generosity. Here are five local organizations that are making the holidays a little brighter for some, but they need your help to continue throughout and beyond the season of cheer.

<span class="content-image-text">Cleveland Sight Center</span>Cleveland Sight CenterCleveland Sight Center

With the holidays comes festive décor, lights that illuminate neighborhoods and snow covered pine trees. But seeing neighborhoods transformed into winter wonderlands is a luxury those with vision impairment don't have.

The Cleveland Sight Center, in 2016 celebrating its 110th anniversary of helping people come to terms with blindness or the onset of vision loss, is trying to make this holiday season memorable and happy for everyone of all ages.

The center’s director of development Bill Spiker says the number of senior citizens coping with diminished eye sight remains one of the primary reasons seniors lose their living independence. In March 2015 a program that assisted seniors living alone with vision loss was cut by the state of Ohio, so this year's efforts are focused on helping seniors stay in the comfort of their homes during the holiday season.

“Our mission is to get blindness out of the way so people can live a full of a life as possible,” says Spiker. The center also works with parents who have children dealing with blindness or vision impairment.

The Sight Center accepts monetary donations year-round, as well as eyeglasses and gently used assistive technology aids such as talking watches, magnifiers, and white canes. Monetary donations help the center provide training and resources to those affected by vision loss.

The Greater Cleveland Food Bank

Food is synonymous with the holiday season. Baked hams, casseroles and desserts in every shape and size are the prized displays at any holiday gathering or party.

But for the one in six residents who go hungry every day in the six counties of Greater Cleveland, not knowing where their next meal will come from is a burden and a stress endured by adults, children and the elderly.

Going to bed hungry becomes a daily routine. In 2015, the Greater Cleveland Cleveland Food Bank distributed 41.7 million pounds of food and other essentials to more than 800 programs in six counties.

Food bank director of public relations Karen Pozna says that monetary donations go the furthest. “For every dollar donated, we are able to provide four nutritious meals per person, which is due to the many volunteers we have and our purchasing power which enables us to buy in bulk,” she explains. “We prefer monetary donations because we can gauge what to buy from the demand and the season.”

Hunger is not just an issue during the holidays. “The bank sees more working poor coming for assistance and nearly half of those who are served are the elderly and children,” says Pozna. “We are thankful that the community thinks of us during the holiday season, but it [hunger] is a year-round need.”

Northeast Ohio Coalition of the Homeless

Particularly in the cold, harsh winter weather that seems to usually linger in Cleveland, the homeless have to endure even more hardships. According to the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH), the number of people sleeping outside has has more than doubled from 2012 to 2015.

<span class="content-image-text">NEOCH donated items ready to go out to homeless people in Cleveland</span>NEOCH donated items ready to go out to homeless people in Cleveland

From November until March, the organization collects blankets, backpacks and other winter gear for distribution as part of the winter drive.

“People don't realize there are families spending nights in cars in Cleveland; there are vets who have served our country honorably and they are sleeping on the streets,” says Brian Davis, executive director of NEOCH. “ It is very expensive for tax payers to support the emergency costs. It is way more cost effective to put them into housing rather than provide emergency care.”

<span class="content-image-text">Cleveland American Veterans Association</span>Cleveland American Veterans AssociationCleveland American Veteran Association

For the members of the armed forces serving our country overseas and for their families back home in the states, the holidays mean something totally different.

Holidays remind both the families and military members of the great distance between them and the sacrifices they make every day. But when these soldiers return home, they often face even more challenges

Cleveland American Veteran Association (CAVA) helps veterans transition out of homelessness by providing them furnishings, moving services and toiletries once they have found housing. Another large part of its mission is to educate wartime veterans about the Aid & Attendance Improved Pension Benefit which is offered through the Department of Veteran Affairs.

<span class="content-image-text">The warehouse at The Greater Cleveland Food Bank</span>The warehouse at The Greater Cleveland Food Bank

Veterans go through trying times all year and medical costs can add up. So together with a group of volunteers, CAVA educates veterans aged 65 and older about the benefit, which pays $2,120 per month for medical costs, tax free, for married veterans, and $1,788 for single veterans. 

Molly Carlin, a volunteer at CAVA, says the organization relies solely on contributions from the community. “Most veterans don't even know they can receive this assistance so our job is to bring awareness and ensure they get what they deserve,” she says.

During this time of year, CAVA picks a struggling veteran family to sponsor. “We always need monetary donations because throughout the year we are sponsoring veteran families,” says Carlin. “We are not a humongous organization, but when there is an assistance gap that needs to be filled, we fill it.”

The May Dugan Center

The May Dugan Center understands that the act of giving is sometimes just not enough. So the center encompasses a comprehensive approach to providing assistance to individuals and families on Cleveland’s near west side.

May Dugan provides comprehensive health and human services, such as blood pressure screenings, hosts education services and regularly conducts clothing and food drives.

“The center enriches the lives of individuals and families going through difficult times,” says executive director Rick Kemm. “The majority of the people we work with live below the poverty line.”

With five core programs – counseling, education, basic needs, MomsFirst for pregnant teens, and health and wellness – the center is always looking for donations from the community.

Yesterday the center held its monthly clothing and food drive, but the need is constant for donations, volunteers and tutors. The rising problem of food insecurity remains a problem in Cleveland.

According to the center, between January and November of 2015, May Dugan had 10,697 visits, which was a 12 percent increase from 2014. With continual help from west side communities and strong partnerships with other organizations, the center is making a positive impact.

“What we are doing at the center could be emulated in other neighborhoods throughout Cleveland,” says Kemm. “We are really trying to do something positive in the lives of those struggling.”

Kaylyn Hlavaty
Kaylyn Hlavaty

About the Author: Kaylyn Hlavaty

Kaylyn Hlavaty is a freelance journalist based in Cleveland, Ohio. Prior to relocating back to the states, Kaylyn reported about humanitarian, social, cultural, and refugee-related issues in the Middle East. Her work has appeared in The Washington Times, The Plain Dealer, Cleveland Magazine, Al MonitorBELT Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, MIT Tech Review, among others.