By Linda Dillman
An idea by Canal Winchester resident Brian Wollenberg to help the needy has grown into a program providing Thanksgiving meals for thousands around central Ohio.
In 1997, Wollenberg rallied a group of friends, relatives and co-workers to begin a yearly tradition by assembling more than four dozen food baskets at the Birch Tavern in Groveport for distribution to families in Lockbourne, Obetz, Canal Winchester and Groveport.
Two years later, one of the volunteers was killed in an auto accident and in 2002, Wollenberg named the organization The Byron Saunders Foundation in his friend’s memory.
Wollenberg’s desire to warm empty stomachs at Thanksgiving spread from families in a handful of villages and 50 meals to eight counties and 2,000 meals, including clients in Canal Winchester.
“Last year, Canal Winchester Human Services received more than 150 baskets,” said Canal Winchester Human Services Director Penny Miller. “The baskets are available to any of our Choice Pantry clients as well as families who have registered for the Feeding Our Future project. We are serving 1,131 clients through the Choice Pantry and more than 300 students are registered for Feeding Our Future, so we anticipate the requests will be record-breaking this year.”
Miller said the baskets are donated by the Byron Saunders Foundation to the city’s human services department in support of the food pantry program and the project is coordinated in donated warehouse space by Diley Ridge Medical Center.
“On Nov. 20, we will be receiving our disbursement, using our cargo van to pick baskets up as Brian directs,” said Miller. “The clients of the Canal Winchester Food Pantry Program would not have the benefit of a Thanksgiving basket if it were not for the generosity and support of Brian Wollenberg and his foundation.”
Miller said the programs and services provided by Canal Winchester Human Services are only possible because of donations to the organization.
“This gift of Thanksgiving baskets is another example of how contributions allow us the opportunity to serve the Canal Winchester community,” said Miller.
In addition to the Saunders Foundation, an annual Football for Food campaign helps keep Canal Winchester pantry shelves full through the Christmas holidays. However, this year Football for Food donations were down by more than half.
“This year, we collected almost 8,000 food items versus 2012, when we collected more than 20,000 items,” said Miller. “At the same time, we continue to add new clients every week. In June, we hit the 1,000 person mark for the first time in the history of the pantry. At the end of September, we had 1,131 clients registered. Just this week, three families called within hours of each other asking for assistance with food and all three families said they had to ask for the first time. This trend is happening more and more often.”
Miller said without the support of donations Human Services would not be able to accomplish its mission. She stressed donations from everyone is what provides their success.
Summer is the pantry’s hardest season. Children are home for the summer and not receiving free breakfast/free lunch from school. According to Miller, the additional meals add to the stress many of their clients experience.
“Because the donations during our Football For Food campaign were so low compared to previous years, combined with we are serving more people than ever before, we are concerned how we will stretch our resources to take care of people through the end of the year,” said Miller.
Donations of food and household items are needed, as are financial donations for purchases through the Mid-Ohio Food Bank at a discounted cost to maximize buying power. Contact Human Services at 834-3888 for information.