What if you could enjoy one of the state’s top attractions for free — and, at the same time, help your neighbors come through a difficult time in their lives?
That’s exactly what’s happening this month.
Anyone donating five cans of nonperishable food will receive free gate admission to the Lee Regional Fair on Sunday, Sept. 15. The annual event has been named one of the state’s top fairs and always draws huge crowds to enjoy pageants, contests, music, entertainment and food.
Thanks to the Sanford Lions Club and United Way of Lee County, trucks and volunteers will be at each gate to collect and transport donations, which will be distributed through two United Way agencies, The Salvation Army and Christians United Outreach Center.
Free fair admission is just the first phase of The Great Grocery Can-paign, a massive food drive that continues three days later with a daylong public food drive at Depot Park. Volunteers will be operating a “drive-n-drop” location on Wednesday, Sept. 18, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., where you can drive up and hand-off your contribution without even leaving the car.
Last year’s drive was hammered by wind and rain, keeping many people away and forcing United Way to postpone collections not long after lunch. Even with all of the obstacles, our community contributed more than 8,000 pounds of food. That’s more than four tons!
Phyllis Andrews drove through the collection point to deliver food donated by Mildred Waltman, her 102-year-old mother. One former Coty employee unloaded who-knows-how-many bags packed with food, personal care items and 300 disposable baby diapers, another item in critically short supply. And scores of people came by with grocery bags full of canned food.
There are a lot of canned food drives in our community. The National Association of Letter Carriers holds one every spring. Food was collected recently at the Down South Music Festival. And churches all over collect food to help. (Just as an example, New Hope Church collected almost 200 pounds of food in one drive last spring.)
So, it’s natural to ask, “Are my donations really needed?”
Here are some quick numbers. Last year alone, Christians United Outreach Center helped 2,590 different families, distributing more than 600,000 pounds of food. That is a staggering amount, but keep in mind that CUOC is just one of many food pantries working to help our neighbors! The Salvation Army also has a huge outreach in our community and there are other food pantries run by nonprofits and churches all over the area.
And the need won’t be ending any time soon. Requests for food always rise when people can’t find work, and our county unemployment rate rose three-tenths of a point to 11.5 percent in July.
Sometimes the unemployment rate can be misleading, because it’s possible for the rate to go up even when more people actually have jobs. That occurs when the number of people entering the labor force is greater than the number of new people hired. But that’s not what happened in July, when more than 300 people in Lee County lost their jobs.
The bottom line is that your help is needed and The Great Grocery Can-paign is the perfect way to contribute.
If you enjoy sampling all of that tasty fair food and hearing some great entertainment, how about planning your visit on closing day — when you can get in for a fraction of the cost simply by donating food for families who need your help? If you’re visiting the fair some other night, why not go back for one last time? Or, if you can’t go to the Lee Regional Fair at all, drop off your contribution later in the week at Depot Park.
No matter when you make your contribution, you’ll be helping your neighbors when they need it the most.
Jan Hayes is executive director of the United Way of Lee County.