WATERLOO — The line for St. Vincent de Paul’s annual Christmas distribution began forming outside the National Cattle Congress Pavilion in the cold early morning hours Saturday.
Despite an improving economy and falling jobless rate there were still plenty of folks living paycheck to paycheck seeking a little extra help celebrating the holiday season.
“The need is still there,” said Karen Buchanan, who coordinates the event through the Catholic social services agency.
The distribution, which has been running for nearly two decades, was expected to help 450 families with food boxes for Christmas meals and warm coats for winter months, while providing more than 500 children age 12 and under with presents under the tree.
“What it really means is smiling kids on Christmas morning,” said Jeannie Dorn, who was picking out gifts for five of her six children who qualify for the toy program.
“This year this is extremely important,” Dorn said. “It’s kind of supplemental to what I can do on my own. As a single parent, I do work 40 hours a week and sometimes just can’t swing it when I’m outnumbered by children.
“To me, Christmas is much more than gifts,” she added. “But to children who don’t understand the full meaning of that, they want to see those presents under the tree.”
Bill Swisher, who volunteers as the doorman for the event, arrived at 6 a.m. — two hours before doors opened — and found people who had been standing in line since 2:30 a.m. Still, he thought the number of visitors and food boxes was down from previous distributions.
“Apparently people are better off,” he said.
Iowa Workforce Development data shows unemployment rates in Black Hawk County have declined steadily since 2010, with just 1.9 percent of the work force seeking jobs in October 2018.
But the 2018 United Way ALICE Project report for Iowa noted the number of households unable to meet a basic needs budget grew from 30 percent to 37 percent from 2016 to 2018. The report found 41 percent of Black Hawk County households were below the threshold.
“Working families are still struggling due to the mismatch between the basic cost of living and the wages of many jobs across the state, exacerbated by systemic inequalities in opportunity and wealth,” the ALICE Project report stated.
The St. Vincent de Paul distribution helps some of those families bridge the gap.
Toys for Tots provides the bulk of the toys for children, with St. Patrick’s Church and individuals also kicking in with gifts. Columbus High School students raise money to buy discounted food from the Logan Avenue Hy-Vee and the Northeast Iowa Food Bank. Varsity Cleaners provides coats for those in need.
“We also have a lot of volunteers who help,” Buchanan said. “We have a group that comes every year to wrap presents.”
Steve and Barb Schmitz showed up in Santa hats to help with the toy giveaway. It was the second year they’ve volunteered at the event.
“It’s just nice to be able to give, and we can give our time,” Barb Schmitz said. “The families love it and they deserve it.
“The kids really need to be happy,” she added. “The moms and dads are just gleaming, so I can imagine the kids will be too on Christmas morning.”