Editor's note: This is the first story in a series profiling people and organizations helping those in need during the holidays and throughout the year.
For the past five years, Keith Barlow has managed the Taylorsville Food Pantry, a volunteer effort he took on in addition to working full-time as a software engineer.
Barlow usually hands out food bags and boxes three days a week at the pantry, at 4775 S. 1620 West. But there have been several days since August when he didn't bother to unlock the front door because supplies ran dry.
"In October, these were empty," Barlow said on a recent day, waving his hand at wire shelves lining the wall in the newly expanded storage area at the back of the small building. The pantry's groceries come from the Utah Food Bank, businesses and residential donations, while a grant covers administrative costs.
This week, the shelves were moderately stocked with jars of peanut butter, canned tuna, ramen noodles and other nonperishable items, thanks to recent donations from a few churches, schools and Scout troops.
But Barlow knows it only takes one rush of families who have fallen on hard times before the cupboards again are bare.
Utah is starting to crawl out of the recession, but nonprofits serving the state's neediest populations have taken a hit, with donations to many plummeting as the community has collectively tightened its belt. At the same time when many have fewer resources to give, some agencies find themselves with a growing number of families to serve. Some of the same families who once donated items during charity drives now find themselves in need of help, advocates say.
"The recession has changed the face of poverty in America. Now someone seeking food at our St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall could be your neighbor. We hope that this has taught people how important it is to give of their time and resources all year long and the difference they can make in a person's life just by giving a simple donation," said Danielle Stamos, a spokeswoman for Catholic Community Services (CCS), a social services provider based in Salt Lake City that assists about 25,000 people a year, including refugees.
Stamos estimates CCS has seen about a 40 percent increase in the number of Utahns seeking out services since the recession hit about three years ago. More have turned to the agency for help from its emergency assistance programs, which provide clothing, medical aid and rental assistance.
The trend isn't surprising, given recent statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, which found that 13.5 percent of Utah's population about 375,000 people and 15.9 percent of the state's children lived in poverty in 2011.
As the holiday season kicks into full gear, CCS and other agencies are often dependent on end-of-the-year donations to provide services to those who desperately need them throughout the winter.
CCS, for example, is soliciting donations to help achieve a goal of providing 1,400 families with holiday meals. The organization relies on community donations of turkeys, canned cranberries, yams, stuffing and potatoes. They're also organizing warm clothing to donate to children and the homeless as well as stocking up a food bank for the coming months.
"The last two months of the year are crucial for gathering donations. We rely on the donations given during this time period for much of the year. For example, in our food pantries in Salt Lake and northern Utah we must collect a significant amount of food to last throughout the winter. Without this support we may have to scale back on the number of individuals served," Stamos said.
The case is similar at the United Way of Salt Lake, which organizes multiple holiday drives and hosts an online bank for volunteer opportunities at its website, www.uw.org.
This holiday season, among its many other initiatives, the agency is emphasizing its "Changing the Odds" campaign, which has been carried out at neighborhood centers around the valley.
After analyzing problems in specific neighborhoods, service partners have worked to help communities based on need. At some neighborhood centers, residents can find a mobile health clinic, dental screening and food. Others sponsor homework help and after-school programs.
The campaign has found success so far, which the United Way plans to discuss more at a Dec. 12 event, said Jerilyn Stowe, a spokeswoman for the organization.
The United Way is seeking winter clothes and other items to help those in need, but Stowe added that just as valuable as material and monetary contributions is something people sometimes overlook: their time.
"The important thing for us is not just doing a donation, but if people can volunteer there are so many opportunities," she said.
Help from the community is essential for people like Connie Hobbs, 65, who visits the food pantry in Taylorsville three times per month, the maximum number of visits allowed per household.
After paying expenses with her monthly Social Security check, Hobbs said that she usually has $200 left for food and other needs. The money doesn't stretch far.
Hobbs said she sometimes gets discouraged but refuses to let the situation keep her down. "I count my blessings it works," she said.
Sevala and Hasan Kibric, Bosnian refugees who arrived in Salt Lake City 15 years ago, visited the Taylorsville pantry for their second time Monday. Hasan Kibric, 60, battles lung cancer and recently completed five weeks of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. He will soon learn if surgery is needed, he said.
The couple said they also require medications for other health problems Hasan for painful blood clots in his legs, and Sevala for high blood pressure and depression.
"They gave us a little bit of food to help," Sevala Kibric said. "It's better than nothing. Without this, we'd just be hungry."
How to help
P The recession hurt Utah charities. According to the Community Foundation of Utah, the state lost 38 percent of its registered nonprofits since 2009, down to 3,568 from 5,754.
There are still opportunities to give, however. The Utah Department of Commerce's Registered Charities Search (http://1.usa.gov/soR0kr) will help you determine whether a charity is properly registered and learn what percentage of donations go to that charity's beneficiaries.