A local business, food bank and community center teamed up Saturday to provide food for nearly 130 local families in need.
With funds and about 10 volunteers from Mattoon Enterprise Rent-a-Car, several tons of food donated by the Eastern Illinois Food Bank and about 20 volunteers and space provided by Standing Stone Community Center, the day began early for both volunteers and families.
At 8 a.m. in the cool air, a white semi pulled into the loading area of Standing Stone Community Center, 201 N. Sixth St., and threw up its door, revealing row after row of pallets and crates of food.
Shuffling past each other, volunteers began unloading the food and unpacking the individual items, placing them on a line of tables snaking through the interior of the community center.
John Peeler, a coordinator from the Eastern Illinois Food Bank, named off all the items to be put out for those in need: 800 boxes of cereal, 300 boxes of crackers, 170 cans of peas, 160 jars of peanut butter and jelly, 300 cans of soup, and the list continued on.
By the time the community center was ready to open its doors at 9 a.m., a line of more than 20 families and individuals had wound around the building.
"I was surprised how many people were lined up when we got here," said Lindsay Cherry, a volunteer from Mattoon Enterprise Rent-a-Car who helped individuals sign in as they passed through the line.
Once the community center's doors opened, the mass of individuals began to file through the building, arms empty and ready to accept what assistance organizers could provide.
The number of people seeking assistance from local food banks has increased sharply this year, by almost 20 to 30 percent, Peeler said.
"Whether you think there are or not, there's a lot of people who have to choose between paying rent or buying food, paying their electric bill or buying food, or putting gas in their car or buying food," he said. "We're glad to be part of an organization that helps bridge that gap."
Volunteers moved their hands quickly as they loaded boxes and bags full of items for individuals.
One volunteer, Jen Laesch, of Charleston, has received assistance from local food banks before and said the experience of giving back to those in need was humbling.
"You don't realize, as a recipient, how many people it takes to put it together," she said.
Susan Taylor, a volunteer from Salisbury Church in Charleston, said people who passed through the line were very kind and considerate.
"Everyone has been so nice and appreciative," she said. "Almost everybody has thanked us."
Taylor also said she enjoyed striking up conversations with the individuals and sharing ideas about how to use the food in preparing different meals.
At the end of the line of tables stacked high with food items, several men from Mattoon Enterprise Rent-a-Car helped carried boxes and bags of food to individuals' cars.
Tom Price, of Charleston, carried the items he received to a van he borrowed from his neighbor.
Price works as a cook at Buffalo Wild Wings in Mattoon and said he recently had his hours cut from 40 to 50 hours a week down to 20 hours. He said the cut in hours has hit him hard.
"It's touch and go, but somehow we make it," he said.
Price takes care of his 30-year-old daughter who is disabled and said he has seen many families fall on hard times recently, but the food bank has provided vital assistance to those families in need.
"A lot of people either can't get out and work or they've had a backlash of problems, and everything is piling up against them, so this helps quite a bit," he said. "I'm glad to see it."
As he stacked a box of Greek yogurt into his neighbor's van, he said he and his daughter likely will not eat all of the food and that he will share the food with family and friends who are also in need.
"We all just pretty much work together," he said.
Dawn Thomson, executive director of the Standing Stone Community Center, said she was glad to be able to provide local families with the assistance they desperately need and to meet members of the community.
"It's uplifting to me to just say, 'Hey, I'm glad you made it,'" she said.
Thomson also said she looks forward to continuing to provide help to those in need for years to come.
"Anytime we can give folks a leg up, we're all about it," she said.