Seniors see Christmas cheer via food boxes

The Columbia Urban League has been providing boxes of food to the needy for the past 42 Christmases.

But it was the first time Olivia Davis of Hopkins had been there.

On Monday morning, she was one of about 350 people picking up a box filled with ham, chicken, tuna, cornbread mix, flour, sugar, rice, crackers, soup, fresh fruits and vegetables at Alcorn Middle School in North Columbia.

"I was running short, and the church called and said, 'Do you need a Christmas basket?' I said, 'God bless you.' And I thank the Lord for it," said Davis, a member of the Word of God Church and Ministries on Garners Ferry Road.

Davis is on disability, and "this came at a good time. You never know when you'll be the one in need. I'm not ashamed to say that," Davis said. "It's a blessing."

Norine Williams of Columbia was picking up a box for the first time, too.

"I knew about it before, but I wasn't in the financial state I'm in now," she said. "I wouldn't take something that somebody else needed more. But now I need it."

While the Urban League has been feeding the needy at the holidays for four decades, it decided about 15 years ago to focus its Christmas Giving Program on the elderly.

"The elderly are in tremendous need, and most people don't think about them at Christmas," said J.T. McLawhorn, the Urban League's chief executive officer. "Elderly people have been devastated by the economic downturn."

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of seniors living alone who seek help from food pantries increased 81 percent from 2006 to 2008,

"So many times the elderly are choosing between food and medicine. ... We know there's a great need," said the Urban League's Beatrice McKnight, the director of programs for the youth and the elderly, who was helping with the food distribution.

She had plenty of help. Volunteers from the fire department, City Year and members of the community showed up early Monday morning to pack boxes and help distribute food.

College students Christina Myers from Clemson, Candice Grant from USC and Whitney Shaw from USC Upstate gave up a morning of their winter break to help with the program. The three college seniors went to Dutch Fork High School together.

"I've been working retail for years and see people caught up in the (materialism) of Christmas. This puts me back in the Christmas spirit to give back to others," Shaw said. "To be able to do something to make people happy for the rest of the year; that they'll have something to eat and look forward to."

For the members of City Year who were helping, the day reminded them of the need in Columbia.

"This has been eye-opening for me. City Year is the first time I've been exposed to this," said Caroline Callahan, an 18-year-old member from Fairfield, Conn. "It makes me want to help more ... I'm happy we're able to give people what they need."