Friday, December 4, 2009

Economy hits groups helping military families

Military families in need can pick up gifts this year at a "pop up" toy store in Fayetteville, N.C., near Fort Bragg.

By Forrest MacCormack for USA TODAY

Groups that help military families are reporting a drop in cash donations at a time of greater need for those struggling in a down economy while one or more parents fight in Iraq or Afghanistan.

"We're seeing an increase in requests for assistance this year over the same time last year," says Jim Knotts, chief executive of Operation Homefront, a charitable organization that helps military families. Knotts cited an 86% increase in requests for food assistance over last year. "We attribute that to the effects of the economy."

Although active-duty troops can count on a regular paycheck from Uncle Sam, many military families face the same pressures affecting other Americans during this downturn: Spouses are having difficulty finding work, and mounting debts and foreclosures are forcing them out of rental homes, says John Alexander of the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society.

Beginning today, Operation Homefront will team up with Wal-Mart to provide "pop up" toy stores in parking lots near the six bases that have deployed the most troops. Thousands of selected parents will be able to choose holiday gifts provided by Wal-Mart.

"That's going to give my kids at least four gifts a piece, which was no way I could afford," says Nicole Gardner, 26, of Raeford, N.C., whose husband is in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division. They have three children.

"I was talking about canceling Christmas or giving them one little thing apiece and that's it," Gardner says.

MILITARY FAMILIES: Help comes in creative ways

The $1.1 million holiday giving effort will provide toys to 10,000 children at temporary toy stores outside military installations at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Hood and Fort Bliss in Texas, Fort Campbell in Kentucky, Fort Stewart in Georgia and Camp Pendleton in California, says Margaret McKenna, president of the Wal-Mart Foundation.

Wal-Mart will also give $1,000 shopping sprees to 50 families chosen by Operation Homefront and 1,000 gift baskets to caregivers of wounded servicemembers.

Other groups that send gifts to troops or their families say the holiday season is complicated this year because they also have seen a drop in monetary contributions.

Marty Horn, founder of Any Soldier, which has sent care packages and supplies to 1.5 million deployed servicemembers since 2003, says cash donations are down 50% from last year. In 2008, they were down 70% from 2007.

Operation Gratitude, which sends about 100,000 care packages to deployed troops each year, has seen monetary donations drop about 30% compared with last year.

"This year is going to be a bit of a challenge," founder Carolyn Blashek says.

Alexander says 2008 saw a 70% jump in Marines and sailors needing financial assistance, compared with the previous year, and this year is projected to see an additional 18% increase.

Until Operation Homefront chose her family for the toy store at Fort Bragg, Nicole Farley and her Army mechanic husband were worried about providing their six children with a decent Christmas.

Farley, 28, is a full-time student and has been looking for work since 2007 without success. Everywhere she applies, she says, 10 others have applied for the same job. "We're on a very tight budget."

She plans all meals and snacks before grocery shopping, making it easier to buy only what's on her list. She and husband Jeremy have ditched their house phone, cable and nights out. She tries to get all her errands done in one trip to save gas. "And we're juggling bills just to provide a Christmas. … Now it looks like we're going to give them a decent Christmas this year."

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