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Nonprofit's Winter Wishes program seeks gift cards instead of donated items this year

COURTESY PHOTO: NEIGHBORHOOD HOUSE - Neighborhood House, the Southwest Portland nonprofit food pantry and social service provider, will continue its Winter Wishes program this year. Instead of donated items, the organization asks for donated gift cards in small amounts.On a sunny afternoon in September, volunteers were busy packing boxes with fresh produce, canned goods and cartons of milk from a storage room at Neighborhood House. Outside, a box truck was filling up with the loaded food boxes.

The boxes were on their way to various households throughout Portland. Food box delivery is the new mode of operation at Neighborhood House, which recently mobilized its food pantry program.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced a lot of changes at the nonprofit organization, and this winter will see more of them.

As chilly weather sets in and the holidays are fast-approaching amid a public health crisis and economic recession, the service organization still plans to continue its Winter Wishes program. In past years, Winter Wishes has provided clothing, warm coats, food, household items and other gifts for families in need.

Donors would pick out a paper mitten with an item written on it and then purchase and donate that item to Neighborhood House for distribution. This year, the organization is asking for gift cards instead.

"We used to accept new clothing and toys, kitchen items and food," said Ellen Field, volunteer and community engagement coordinator. "This year, we're going to ask for gift card donations instead, so our families can buy what they need or want."

PHOTO COURTESY OF NEIGHBORHOOD HOUSE - Volunteers at Neighborhood House load up food boxes for delivery to households around PortlandField said gift cards to stores like Target, Fred Meyer or Old Navy in small denominations—between $5 and $20—are most needed to help meet the needs of families. Anyone can donate to the Winter Wishes program and this year, there may be more people in need of a warm coat or household basics than in the prior few years.

The Oregon Employment Department reported the state's unemployment rate as of September was 8%. Multnomah County experienced a 9.5% unemployment rate as businesses were closed, shutdown or scaled back significantly due to COVID-19.

As the need for help has grown across the region, so too, have Neighborhood House's services. The organization previously focused its aid to those in Southwest Portland, but now, they serve folks as far away as Gresham, Field said.

"We figured out a really good system for having people order food directly and doing bulk deliveries," she noted.

The food pantry at the Multnomah Village office now uses an order form system, and food boxes get delivered directly to those who request food assistance. The pantry previously offered walk-in service. That's still happening, but now folks wait at a counter, fill out a form and wait for a box or bag to be filled for them.

Oddly, the number of volunteers at the organization has been scaled back for safety, but the amount of food received and delivered is up, Field said, noting they've found efficiencies within the delivery system and gotten financial help via a grant from the Portland Children's Levy. Neighborhood House serves an estimated 1,000 people each month.

Aside from the Winter Wishes drive, the nonprofit is in the midst of trying to pull in $400,000 to cover the next year's operating expenses.

To donate to the Winter Wishes program, click here


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