For many people, the holidays are a time of giving.
And this year, there are many opportunities for Sonoma County residents to give their time and money to organizations that need help serving people in need, officials at local nonprofit agencies say.
Hunger, homelessness and financial hardship are year-round problems, often masked by the trappings of comfort in a county with a median income of more than $60,000 a year.
But with more than 13 percent of families with children living below the federal poverty level — about $23,000 for a family of four — the agencies that form a social safety net are counting on the holiday spirit of people with plenty.
"It's a time of giving and people want to give back," said Rachael McDavid, nonprofit resource specialist at the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County. "We see it every year."
While some agencies hope to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars over the holidays, the currency of giving extends beyond cold cash.
"Volunteers are the driving force behind our organization," said Billy Bartz, food drive and event coordinator for the Redwood Empire Food Bank, which distributes food every month to 78,000 people.
The food bank has a paid staff of about 40 full-time workers, but depends on more than 3,500 volunteers to bag and sort food at the agency's warehouse on Industrial Drive.
The agency's Winter Food and Funds Drive aims to collect 200,000 pounds of food and $200,000 by Jan. 31, with collection barrels at local businesses.
"It's critical for us that people in our county step up and donate," Bartz said.
For details on the drive and a schedule of volunteer food bagging events, see the food bank's website at www.refb.org.
The Volunteer Center maintains a year-round list of volunteer opportunities at its website, www.volunteernow.org. It currently features a special list of holiday volunteer needs.
The Secret Santa program, managed by the Volunteer Center in collaboration with KZST Radio and Friedman's Home Improvement, hopes to enlist 800 volunteers for a host of chores, including transportation and wrapping of donated gifts.
Gift wrapping sessions will be held Dec. 10 to 21, said Marty Wait, Secret Santa project coordinator.
The program, known for the red plastic hearts carrying gift wishes from specific recipients, fulfilled more than 13,000 gift requests last year and has already received more than 15,000 requests this year, Wait said.
Requests submitted by children, adults and seniors come to the program from about 110 schools and nonprofit service agencies.
"Secret Santa gets into your heart," Wait said. "It gives you that sense you're connected to other people during the holidays."
Emblematic of the holidays are the Salvation Army's volunteer bell ringers, who began deploying last week with a goal of collecting $169,000, up 15 percent from last year.
Jennifer Freitas, volunteer services coordinator, said she hopes to enlist 400 bell ringers for the agency's 122nd annual Red Kettle Campaign, 100 more than last year.
Major C. Joe Murray, commanding officer of the Salvation Army in Santa Rosa, said the tradition began in San Francisco in 1891 when Capt. Joseph McPhee set up a crab pot on the waterfront to collect donations from ferry passengers.
The black pots eventually were painted red, and the bell ringing was added to attract attention and "to ring out Christmas cheer," Murray said.