Hungry for the holidays: Amid COVID recession, record number of Americans are requesting charity

After surviving cancer in the middle of a pandemic, all eight-year-old Lealand wants is for Santa to deliver games for his Xbox.

For his great-grandmother and primary caregiver, Becky Balzarini, it's a different story altogether. Balzarini, 71, has been struggling to put food on the table ever since she quit her job to care for her immunocompromised great-grandson. She worked part-time as a health aid in Illinois, but stopped seeing patients to reduce the risk of getting Lealand sick.

"It was a difficult decision but I had to do it," said Balzarini. "We're trying to make things as normal as possible for him."

Like Balzarini and Lealand, millions of families struggling with COVID-19's economic turmoil are seeking help—many for the first time—with everything from meal baskets to presents under the Christmas tree.

From left, Sharon Krestschmar and Sarah McMurtry help prepare gifts for the Catholic Charities' Family Christmas Program at the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh Pastoral Center on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020, in downtown Pittsburgh. The Catholic Charities will be serving families that would not typically have participated in the program in the past due to the economic devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Salvation Army is projecting 6.6 million people will come to them for support, up from 2.6 million on a regular holiday season, and officials with the organization said they are worried they won't be able to meet the demand. Many charity leaders report they, too, are worried about meeting the skyrocketing need as the people who would ordinarily be giving are strapped for cash themselves.

"This year we've seen what can only be described as a tsunami of need," said Kenneth Hodder, the Salvation Army's national commander.

Millions of jobs were wiped out by COVID crisis

There has never been such a dire need in the Salvation Army's history—not even after the 2008 financial crisis where the organization served meals for an additional 10 million people for three years straight after the economy tanked.

"Many of those seeking help are the very people who typically donate to the Salvation Army," said Hodder.

In the six-month period between March through September, the Salvation Army served over 150 million meals as compared to 52 million in all of 2019. With the holiday surge, people are asking for shelter and utility assistance in record numbers.

"It was very hard for me to ask for help," said Balzarini, who worked as a factory worker for 37 years and raised two kids as a single mom. "I'm used to doing everything on my own, no matter how tough it gets."

About 9.8 million people remain unemployed after 22.2 million jobs were wiped out in the health crisis, according to the U.S. Labor Department data. Despite enthusiasm over the economy adding jobs in recent months and the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine on Monday, prospects for economic recovery have been offset by soaring rates of the virus. In some states, officials have reinstated a new wave of restrictions in recent weeks, prompting layoffs.

Economic fallout from COVID-19 continues to hit lower-income Americans the hardest.

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that one in four adults had trouble paying their bills since the outbreak began. A third of Americans have dipped into their savings and one in six have borrowed money or gotten food from a food bank.

Aracely Gamboa, 46, first sought help at a Salvation Army food pantry after losing her job in the outbreak of the COVID-19. Eventually, she started volunteering using her waitressing experience to help with the lunch rush.

That's the case for Aracely Gamboa, 46, a deli worker from Chelsea, Massachusetts, who found a Salvation Army pantry in April—when her savings and her food had run out.

Gamboa had never been unemployed since arriving in the United States from Mexico, 32 years ago. Between hand sanitizer and face mask shortages, the uninsured single mom feared for her three kids if she got sick.

"Tuve que armarme de valor," said Gamboa in Spanish, "I had to muster the courage to get help."

Eventually, she started volunteering at the Salvation Army, using her waitressing experience to help with the lunch rush.

While the donations have allowed her to feed her family, Gamboa said this Christmas season has been incredibly tough on her. There is no tall decorated pine tree with twinkling lights in the middle of the living room overflowing with presents.

Maj. Osei Stewart of The Salvation Army rings a bell to alert passersby and drivers of the charitable organization's drive-through donations event at the TCL Chinese Theatre, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020, in Los Angeles.

"All year, when my kids ask me for stuff, I tell them they have to wait until Christmas," said Gamboa, who would save year-round to splurge on their gifts and the traditional Mexican Christmas Eve meal of tamales and pozole, a meat stew garnished with shredded lettuce, chili peppers, onion and radishes.

"I find it really difficult to not be able to please them how I hoped," she said.

According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, child hunger is increasing across the U.S. One in seven families with children said there was not enough to eat, in the survey conducted between the months of April and December.

Those figures were higher for people of color, where 23% of Black households and 19% of Latino households reported they were unable to provide food for their children.

It's a change, Gamboa, too, said she had experienced.

Last Christmas, she did her meal shopping in one swoop at Market Basket, a New England supermarket chain. This year, she's pinched pennies to buy the specialty ingredients like the dried corn husks, a few items at a time, while saving food from her donation box.

"I go little by little," she said. "But the lettuce isn't going to keep for three weeks."

Aracely Gamboa, 46, stands with her youngest son, Nathan, 11, by their tabletop Christmas tree and Virgin of Guadalupe. Gamboa said the holidays have been hard; there is no tall tree with twinkling lights in the middle of the living room.

Retail closures and working-from-home affecting donations

When Tyronika Garrison lost her job last year in New Orleans, she thought she would be able to quickly get another job in her field as a certified nursing assistant.

Then, the 29 year old almost died after childbirth from complications with her blood pressure, which kills twice as many Black mothers in the U.S. Unable to go back to work as bills quickly piled on, she and her six children were evicted and entered homelessness within a few months just as the coronavirus had begun in Louisiana.

Want to help?: Millions of Americans could be facing eviction after the holidays. Here's how you can help

Reluctantly, Garrison and her family entered into a Salvation Army shelter with the clothes on their backs.

"I broke down," an emotional Garrison said over the phone. "My mom pushed me. She told me that anybody could be in this situation."

She was able to get assistance with meal support, childcare, landing a job and a new home within the span of a few months.

"I couldn't give up. My kids were counting on me as a mother," said Garrison.

The rental assistance has allowed her to save money to be able to celebrate Christmas with her children.

As communities continue to shut down again due to the pandemic, Kenneth Hodder, national commander of the Salvation Army, said there's been a 25% decrease in money raised by the traditional Red Kettles. Hodder said digital donations will not make up for the deficit.

"I'm going to get them baby dolls, toy cars, bikes, clothes, socks and blocks," said Garrison. "I would love to get more things for them but I can't."

Regardless, she said, "every day they make me happy and I show them I love them and I will never stop being there for them."

Many aid organizations say they fear families like Garrison's could fall through the cracks with exorbitant need—and the inability to catch up.

"We are doing everything we can to assist a quarter-million children in the metro Atlanta area," said Cherrie Carney, assistant coordinator for Atlanta Toys for Tots.

Last year, the organization donated 859,000 toys. Carney said the gap is due to the decrease in donations and volunteers and workplaces that have turned remote and are no longer holding holiday toy drives.

With retail shopping ailing, there are fewer red kettles, fewer people going to stores and fewer people able to give.

"We've already seen a national decrease of 25% in money raised," said Hodder of the Salvation Army. "While we are seeing an increase in digital donations, it will not make up for the expected deficit at traditional Red Kettles."

In some cases, public health restrictions have made it harder to hand out gifts. Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree program, which gives toys to the children of incarcerated parents, said they faced challenges despite going virtual and offering a contactless delivery option of packages being mailed directly to the family.

The Case family hand out bikes at the Boys Girls Clubs of Broward County in Florida. Since 1982, the
"Rick Case Bikes for Kids" program has provided thousands of needy children with a bicycle during the holidays. Rita Case, CEO of Rick Case Automotive Group, said  bike donations are coming in record numbers this year.

"We were able to assign approximately 225,000 children, which represents a decrease from last year of just over 300,000 children," said Cindy Smith, director of the Angel Tree program.

Meanwhile, charities big and small continue working tirelessly to meet the Christmas deadline, said Rita Case, of Rick Case Bikes for Kids program, which will give 6,500 bikes this year to children in need.

"My hope is that the entire country will come together and support their communities," Case said.

Among them is 12-year-old Brant Robinson, who got a brand new red bike from Rick Case Bikes for Kids that he plans to use to get to school. While Robinson isn't too big on presents himself, he keeps thinking about all the children that might not receive one this year.

"I wish that kids that need presents and don't have them because their parents are out of work because of COVID get whatever they want for Christmas," said Robinson.

If you're interested in finding ways to give back, visit to learn more about how you can help the Salvation Army rescue Christmas this year in your hometown.

Some additional safe ways to give this year include:

  • Via Apple Pay or Google Pay at the red kettle at partner storefront locations

  • Ask Amazon Alexa to donate by saying, “Alexa, donate to the Salvation Army,” then specify the amount

  • Give any amount by texting “KETTLE” to 91999

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID, Christmas: Parents turn to food bank, Salvation Army for help