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Published: Wednesday, 12/6/2006

'Christmas Cheer' to be spread around

BY JANE SCHMUCKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Fulton County's Christmas Cheer, which will help make the holidays merrier for about 600 families this year, will set up its treasure trove at the county fairgrounds Monday and Tuesday and open its doors to recipients Wednesday and Thursday.

There will be soap of all kinds - laundry, dishwashing, shampoo, and bath - for every family, as well as toilet paper, facial tissue, deodorant, and toothpaste.

Each family will be allowed to choose about 15 cans of soup, about 25 items such as pudding, noodles, or canned vegetables that cost $1 or less, and about five items such as peanut butter, jelly, sugar, or syrup. There will be a box of crackers and a few boxes of cereal for each family.

There will be gifts. A handmade comforter or lap robe for each family. Hand-knitted caps, scarves, and mittens. And one or two presents, ranging from toys to jewelry, for each of the 1,800 to 2,000 children involved, from newborns up to high school seniors.

There will be more, too, though exactly what won't be known until Tuesday afternoon. This is the second year that organizer Cecily Rohrs said she expects to get goods from the Toledo Food Bank. Last year that included over-the-counter medications such as cough syrup.

In all, most families will leave with well over $100 worth of goods. And they will be of their own choosing.

"The thing we are most proud of is we don't give them a box or a basket. They get to come in and shop for the things they like most," Ms. Rohrs said.

Recipients make their way through the Christmas Cheer "store" at the fairgrounds with the help of more than 150 volunteers.

Exactly how many items recipients will be allowed to select from each category won't be determined until late Tuesday. Every item donated to Christmas Cheer is counted and categorized as it is set up in the store. That gives Ms. Rohrs "an enormous story problem" late Tuesday afternoon as she divides the number of items in each category by the number of families who signed up to get help from Christmas Cheer.

Notices of the Christmas Cheer program were sent by the county Department of Job and Family Services to about 1,800 families who receive food stamps or Medicaid health care.

It's done that way so that the recipients of those benefits remain known only to the Job and Family Services office. Then, only those who choose to participate mail their forms back to those organizers.

The 1,800 notices sent out this year is a new high, though not up dramatically from last year, according to Ken Caldwell, director of the county job and family services. But the 600 families that signed up with Christmas Cheer is fairly similar to the past five years, Ms. Rohrs said.

The difference between the two figures might be explained largely by the cost of health care and strong pride, according to Mr. Caldwell.

Changes in Medicaid's rules in the past decade have allowed more children especially to qualify for its benefits. And a rather mediocre local economy has contributed to burgeoning growth in Medicaid numbers in Fulton County as well.

Consider: the most recent figures available show 4,210 county residents, which is about 10 percent of the county's population, on Medicaid's rolls. That number is up by about 30 percent from roughly 3,200 Medicaid recipients in the county as recently as 2002.

Because of the high cost of health care, Mr. Caldwell said, grandparents who are raising grandchildren will sometimes sign up for Medicaid for the children - even though they refuse other assistance that they think of as a handout.

"I think there's a lot of pride in our community," Mr. Caldwell said.

There's also a great deal of generosity in Fulton County, according to Ms. Rohrs, who has been organizing Christmas Cheer for 22 years.

For months, local folks have been stitching comforters and knitting hats, scarves, and mittens for Christmas Cheer, and the charity receives checks from many individuals and organizations to use in buying gifts and toiletries.

Such items are given to Ms. Rohrs in all seasons; she's been storing cases of pancake syrup in her home for some time.

"We sort of live surrounded by Christmas Cheer all year," she said.

Contact Jane Schmucker at:

jschmucker@theblade.com

or 419-337-7780.



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