'Tis the Season
While many of us make merry, some of us are preparing for the Upper Peninsula's harshest season -- in a difficult year
Last week, seven volunteers gathered inside of Glad Tidings Assembly of God in Hancock for several hours to pre-pack food that would be given directly to local school kids later that week to make sure that they have enough to eat over the weekend, whether their guardians feed them or not.
That’s the weekly mission of 31 Backpacks, which started by helping just 31 kids and now helps more than 250. They aim to feed kids directly, with simple food that requires little or no preparation. This way, the kids can eat if there’s an adult involved to help or if they’re absent.
They pack extra food for long weekends like Thanksgiving break. For winter break each year, they do the “Big Pack”, which will have to cover 16 days this year.
“Each student receives about five kitchen-size bags full of food,” Melissa Maki said. “It’s more family-oriented. That might be boxes of pasta and that sort of thing.”
Maki said that since the beginning of the pandemic, they’ve started stockpiling some of the foods they get. As a registered 5019(c)3 nonprofit, they qualify to purchase from the food bank.
“When we see something at the food bank that we know we’re going to need, whether it’s this week or two months from now or four months from now, we’ll go ahead and buy it,” she said.
When the pandemic broke, 31 Backpacks had just prepared their spring break Big Pack and nearly emptied their shelves. Because of school closings and other circumstances, the number of students enrolled in their program jumped nearly tenfold.
“We had enough food for the then and now, but we didn’t have enough food for the future,” Maki said. “Now, if you take a look, we have two rooms here at the church and we keep them fairly well-stocked at this point in the event of some other emergency like that.”
The group constantly adjusts what they pack based on what they can get, as the supply chain issues continue to make availability uncertain.
“For example, we haven’t seen Pop-Tarts in months,” Maki said. “We still have some on hand because we had the forethought to get some, but we’re looking at alternatives for items like that.”
She said Lunchables and milk have also had some recent local supply issues.
“That’s been our biggest challenge as far as running the program this year,” Maki said.
Finding volunteers amid COVID-19 and other sicknesses is also an ongoing issue.
“It affects us every single week,” Maki said. “It’s kind of become routine, to not have a routine.”
31 Backpacks is always looking for more volunteers and donors. You can contact them by reaching out through their Facebook page.
Immediately across the street from the Calumet block that burned down earlier this year—destroying 15 apartments and leaving around 30 people homeless—the Copper Country Angel Mission conducted their annual coat giveaway and Angel Tree signup, despite some of their volunteers being out with illness.
“We thrive on helping the needy,” Lynn Lanyon said. “But you don’t have to be needy. Anyone can come in, grab a jacket, and just leave a little donation.”
Lanyon sat at the storefront of 117 5th Street on Wednesday afternoon, conducting people into the racks of coats and taking down their names, ages, and numbers of children for the Angel Tree.
Lanyon said that volunteers have been extra difficult to find lately, and illnesses have kept some of those who do volunteer at home sometimes. Copper Country Angel Mission requires masks inside their buildings, and Lanyon said some people have still been pushing back about wearing them to come in.
Donations continue to be steady according to Lanyon, and they’ve even started seeing some nicer items than they’re used to. However, some people are also dropping off garbage.
“We can’t afford to take your trash,” Lanyon said.
She tries to give people the benefit of the doubt, assuming it just got mixed in and forgotten in a truckload of donated items. However, paying to properly dispose of other people’s garbage is an expense the charity can hardly afford.
You can contact Copper Country Angel Mission to volunteer, donate, or register for the Angel Tree by calling Lanyon at (906)934-3602, or visiting their website or Facebook page. Lanyon said waterproof gloves and boots are in particularly high demand.
The Copper Country Angel Mission also operates a food pantry.
Pete Mackin, site director for the Hancock Salvation Army, has been working to tie local resources for the needy together for easier access. He said this year has been particularly bad for local homelessness.
Compounding widespread national issues, the fire in Calumet destroyed 15 apartments, student enrollment at the local universities is at 30-year highs, and some local landlords took the seller’s housing market as an opportunity to sell their properties—often with the result of pushing their tenants out into a difficult housing market.
“We’ve had a number of factors that have made it into a full-blown crisis,” Mackin said.
As Mackin and I talked, a family looking for a new apartment moved plastic bags full of their belongings into the Salvation Army building for temporary safe storage. Mackin said his work finding housing for people at-risk of going homeless has jumped from the occasional drug addict or refugee from domestic dispute to a regular activity he undertakes.
“And these are people who have lost housing for no reason of their own,” Mackin said. “Most of the time, they’re seniors on fixed income.”
With no shelter in the area, Mackin scrambles together a variety of resources. Sometimes he can bus people to shelters in other cities, but if people have family or a job in the area they want to stay near, leaving isn’t a good option.
“These are people that are, you know, working poor,” Mackin said. “They’re families. I’ve had little kids living in warehouses with their parents… in tents, in cars with heaters we’ve been providing…”
In addition, this year Mackin is anticipating record-high bills for propane and natural gas, alongside the always-high electricity rates.
“I’m a bit concerned about that for the area,” Mackin said.
He hopes the milder winter that’s been forecasted helps mitigate the issue but is also ready to help connect people with state assistance to meet their energy needs.
As the holidays draw near, Mackin is also preparing for the Salvation Army’s signature fundraiser, ringing the red kettle.
“Last year, it definitely took a miracle of God for us to get through the bell ringing season,” Mackin said. “I did not have students, I did not have seniors, I didn’t have community groups…”
Many of the places where bellringers usually volunteer were also closed, too. Mackin said despite the challenges, the community came out and supported the organization.
“It was amazing how people came to support us last year,” he said.
This year, Mackin is planning to have bellringers in Ontonagon and Baraga counties as well. That’s important because the money all stays local.
“What I raise in those kettles in that town is what’s for that community,” Mackin said.
He said what’s raised in Houghton is used in Houghton, and the same for Calumet, Lake Linden, or any of the other bellringing locations—with some narrow exceptions for nearby communities that don’t have a possible location for volunteers to ring.
“It’s all coming from your support,” Mackin said.