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Ample ways for people to help over the holidays

  • (l to r) Volunteers Aaron Walker, Rheta Gahagan and her daughter Autumn Gahagan, 11, pack oranges at the Redwood Empire Food Bank on Tuesday, November 21, 2012.

    (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

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.

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