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A need for hope - August 10, 2009
By: Paula Belden

While the nation’s unemployment figure nears 10-percent, Michigan’s rate hit 15.2-percent in June. In Northeast Michigan the jobless count rose to 16.3-percent, ranging from 20.3-percent in Oscoda County, the state’s second highest, to Ogemaw County’s 12.9-percent rate.

With these statistics comes hard times and a growing need across the region, according to those who serve the area’s most hard pressed. The stress of paying bills has hit the jobless hard in Roscommon County and it shows at the local food pantry.

“It hit in August, we wouldn’t have had to watch the news at all to know what was going on with the economy,” said Louse Bucco, treasurer of Prudenville’s Project H.O.P.E. (Helping Our People Eat). The pantry distributes eggs, cheese, meat products and frozen fruit to more than 900 people a month.

When last month’s layoffs at a large local industrial firm spilled over to other smaller manufacturers, Project H.O.P.E. noticed an immediate increase in need, said Pam Stephen, Project H.O.P.E.’s director. Support for the program comes from a wide range of groups and agencies, including the Federal Emergency Food and Shelter Program, the Roscommon Community Foundation, Houghton Lake Rotary Club and United Way of Roscommon County. In addition, Wal-Mart employees choose Project H.O.P.E. as their targeted beneficiary of the year, while employees of Save-a-lot, in Houghton Lake, raised $800 through a community fund raiser.

Roscommon County’s jobless are not alone.

In Arenac County, the “increased need is phenomenal,” said Jim Falsey, pastor of St. Mark’s Catholic Church in AuGres. In his community, churches have banded together to form the AuGres Christen Charity. In the past, the charity served one to two families a week with its food give-away program. It now helps 25 to 30 families and, regardless of the town’s small size, Falsey says about 125,000 first time and returning individuals were served last year.

“These are not exactly wealthy people,” Falsey said, noting those who have received in the past are sometimes the most generous now.

The story is the same across the north.

“It’s a consistent trend,” said Sarah Hierman, director of the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan. That organization is the primary supplier to food pantries and community support agencies in 22 Northeast Michigan counties stretching all the way to the Mackinaw Bridge.

A late July food give away at Zion Lutheran Church in Tawas City found 30 to 35 volunteers serving frozen meats, fresh tomatoes and other perishables to 427 people. In all, the group distributed a little better than four tons of food. Nonetheless they ran out two hours early.

“I could tell they needed it,” said Al Trautner, director of the Zion Lutheran effort. Funding for the program comes from the congregation and Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, a denominational financial services organization. Now in its third year the church’s community support program is finding need greater than ever.

The demand felt by Trautner’s group as well as others for money, food and volunteers is typical of communities across Northeast Michigan and beyond, according to Hierman. If it wasn’t for community support she says the issue would be a lot worse.

“A positive thing about it is the great network of people,” she said. “Great folk’s dedicated to using resources and providing services for the communities.”

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