At Holidays and All Year, Good Neighbors Serves Families in Need
Volunteer estimates local branch served about 800 families this winter.
A week before Christmas, the old cafeteria of what used to be Sill Middle School was overflowing with clothes, shoes, housewares and canned food. At first glance, it looked like a mess; in actuality, it was all being carefully sorted and categorized by dozens of dedicated Good Neighbors volunteers on Dec. 16.
As she dropped off a bag of toys and books for donation, a woman named Melissa asked a volunteer, "Do you accept stuffed animals?" She promised to bring a bag of them back later that day.
The volunteer, Linda Pearson, said she first learned of Good Neighbors when a friend from church asked her to attend an informational meeting about the organization. That was 40 years ago, and Pearson has been volunteering with Good Neighbors ever since.
Good Neighbors, founded in 1957, is an Akron-based non-profit organization that provides local families in need with everything from food to clothing to school supplies. Near the holiday season, Pearson said, the need is particularly great: an official tally is not yet available, but she estimated that this holiday season, the Cuyahoga Falls branch of Good Neighbors may serve upwards 800 families. Last year, it served about 600.
Pearson said Good Neighbors' clients come from diverse backgrounds, financial statuses and family situations. They may include unemployed individuals, single parents, victims of house fires and other unexpected tragedies, and senior citizens whose Social Security doesn't quite pay the bills.
"Sometimes it's a one-year thing and sometimes it goes on for years and years," Pearson said. "We get people who say they never thought they'd have to ask for help, but they're glad Good Neighbors is here to help them through a bad time."
To qualify for Good Neighbors' assistance, families must obtain a written referral attesting to their need. Referrals can come from ministers, school principals, city officials and other reliable sources with "knowledge of their situation," Pearson said. To continue to qualify for assistance, families must receive updated referrals once per year.
The Cuyahoga Falls branch of Good Neighbors started in 1996 in a chicken coop, Pearson said with a laugh; since then, it has inhabited both a residential home and a Baptist church. For the past three years, it has been housed in the cafeteria at Sill, though volunteer Nancy Heaton says the organization is searching for a new location because the City of Cuyahoga Falls would like to tear down the old school.
"We need a new building," Heaton said. "That's high on Santa's list!"
For now, though, the large cafeteria serves as collection site, storage warehouse and a place where clients can pick up much-needed supplies. Qualified families schedule time to shop in the large portion of the cafeteria set up like a store. Clothing is hung on spinning racks and organized by type and size, and the pantry is filled with canned goods, cereal and pasta. Volunteers also give clients toiletries such as toothpaste, toilet paper and shampoo when they are available.
A client who asked to remain anonymous said she has been receiving assistance from Good Neighbors for the past two years.
"I love the workers here," she said as she tried on a red winter jacket. "They've got great clothes, especially for kids, and they look brand new." A nearby volunteer encouraged her to take the coat home with her.
Bus driver Larry Noel said he had never heard of Good Neighbors until he was tasked with driving a bus full of high school-aged volunteers to the site in mid-December. He said the teens, all from Cuyahoga Falls High School, were enthusiastic about helping out in the lead-up to Christmas.
"I think they enjoy the change of pace," Noel said. "When you center your attention on other people, it makes you feel better. It helps [the students] and they don't even know it."
It wasn't just the students who were moved by Good Neighbors' work. Upon arrival at the donation site, Noel said, he was so impressed by the organization that he committed to volunteering on a part-time basis starting in January. He said he was particularly struck by volunteers' camaraderie, the quality of items Good Neighbors offers its clients and the store-style set-up.
"Dignity," he said. "It puts some dignity to it."