The final weeks before Christmas mark a big push for those trying to help the neediest in Oregon
This time last year, Forest Grove firefighters were getting ready to play Santa Claus for 120 families in and around the city, divvying up a sultan's cache of goodies from Legos to Barbies for needy little tykes.
But this year, things look a little bleaker. Demand is up, with 200 families already signed up for support. Yet donations are down. Until last week, the teenager gift section of Forest Grove Fire and Rescue's toy vault consisted of a Trivial Pursuit game and a puzzle.
'Everybody knows somebody who's affected by this economy,' said Dave Nemeyer, Forest Grove fire marshal and de facto head Santa for the department, which leads the largest toy drive in the area.
Still, there are people who dig deep in order to give. The paucity of teenage gifts was solved by local Girl Scout Troop 41283, whose members dropped off a load of DVDs and other high school sundries, but there are still plenty of holes to fill.
And the days when Good Samaritans dropped off multiple Xbox gaming consoles are in the past.
'There's a lot of need right now,' Nemeyer said.
Census tracks poverty
If census data is any guide, it's no surprise that firefighters are having a harder time bringing in a Yuletide flood. In 2000, 14.3 percent of Forest Grove residents were in poverty. In 2010, 31 percent were. That puts the share of city residents in poverty well above the statewide statistic of nearly 14 percent.
'Washington County is growing very fast, [and] its poverty rate is growing very quickly,' said Jean Kempe-Ware, spokesperson for the Oregon Food Bank Network, which coordinates emergency food supplies for thousands of Oregonians every year.
In Oregon, where nearly 30 percent of children aren't sure where their next meal will come from, one in five households tapped into food pantries and emergency food supplies during the last fiscal year, which ended in July.
While poverty rates have risen in many parts of the state (though they fell slightly in Beaverton) during the Great Recession, the level of food insecurity seems to be stable. According to an analysis of state behavioral risk data conducted by the Oregon Center for Public Policy, the statewide rate of food insecurity peaked in 2004 and has remained flat or slightly up since the onset of the recession.
Job cuts hit hard
But in Forest Grove, where Matsushita shuttered a manufacturing plant in 2005 and Times-Litho and Cedar Canyon shut down - sending at least 50 employees each to unemployment lines - and where layoffs have hit nearly all of western Washington County's major employers, from Stimson Lumber, Co. to Merix, times are tough.
And even though the construction of a new Intel fabrication plant is underway in Hillsboro, and signs of life are percolating in the regional economy, things still feel blighted on the streets around Forest Grove, where a freak fire eliminated Prime Time restaurant, and about 50 jobs, three weeks ago.
'I know the food banks are just getting slammed,' said Eric Canon, who chairs the Interfaith Committee on Homelessness, a Washington County group hoping to aid the poor and homeless.
Canon said the SOS shelter at Sonrise Church in Hillsboro needed volunteers last week after opening its doors to those who need a warm place to stay.
Monday morning, Canon sent out an e-mail alerting friends and contacts that the Forest Grove United Church of Christ Severe Weather Shelter needs warm socks and blankets.
The local shelter on College Way has been operating with funds from a grant, but can use donations as well.
'Most of us are doing a lot of shopping these days,' Canon wrote. 'I hope we are also doing the sort of giving that saves lives and touches those who need our help and caring so desperately.'
Firefighters get ready
Meanwhile, firefighters were hitting the shops over the weekend, taking advantage of sales and loading up on Legos.
'This year we asked parents what their favorite toy was,' Nemeyer said. 'We had a lot of requests for Legos.'
The weekend buy - $130 worth - bolstered the Lego larder, but Nemeyer isn't sure the station has enough yet.
But according to Liz Hinton, who's coordinating the paperwork and logistics for the toy drive, the number one Christmas request is a bike.
'That's something we don't get. That's a tough one,' Nemeyer said. 'If we do, it's one or two.'
And the firefighters' list is long. With 200 families, and one to seven kids per household, Nemeyer estimates the department will be lucky to get one toy in the hands of each child on their list under the age of 12 this year.
And he's hoping that when firefighters empty their donation bins today and load up donations from KGW-TV in Portland on Dec. 21, the supply will be just right.
It's simply not that easy being St. Nick.
'It's not like the cartoons,' Nemeyer said. 'A little green elf didn't just show up and sprinkle some dust and figure everything out.'
How to Help
Donate toys: Drop off new, unwrapped toys at the Forest Grove Fire Station, 1919 Ash St., in Forest Grove, or at the Cornelius Fire Station, 1311 N Barlow St., in Cornelius.
To donate toys to former employees of Prime Time (the local restaurant that was recently destroyed in a fire), drop off toys at the News-Times, located at 2038 Pacific Ave., in Forest Grove.
Firefighters from both departments will also be at the Cornelius Walmart Saturday, Dec. 17 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. to collect toys.
Donate to a shelter: Contact the Forest Grove United Church of Christ at 503-357-9121 for more information about severe weather shelter needs in Washington County. Contact the SOS Shelter in Hillsboro at 503-640-2449 for information about how you can help.
Donate food: Drop off food donations at the Cornelius Fred Meyer, located at 2200 Baseline St., or any other Portland-area Fred Meyer or Jiffy Lube location. You can also purchase a $10 bag at Safeway locations, which, when filled, benefit the Oregon Food Bank Network for distribution to needy families during the holidays.