For some, the COVID-19 pandemic has been an inconvenience. For others, the pandemic has created financial hardship.

For the 38th consecutive year, the Lake County Food Pantry is stepping up to help families throughout the county, including those suffering as a result of the pandemic, have a better Christmas through their Angel Tree program.

Working with the state Department of Social Services, local churches and Inter-Lakes Community Action Partnership, the nonprofit is currently working to identify families who would like a little assistance this year.

"We try to cast the net as wide as we can to invite those who have a need to apply," said Jeff Nelson, president of the Food Pantry board.

Applications are available at ICAP. They were sent home with children who benefit from the Food Pantry's backpack program. DSS has mailed out applications.

"They have been great in offering to help us get applications to their clients," Nelson said. "We very much value that support."

This weekend, information will go out in church bulletins. This weekend, angel trees will be put up at three locations in Madison: Gary's Bakery, the Madison Public Library and Montgomery's Furniture.

However, applications will continue to be accepted through Nov. 18. They can be returned to ICAP or mailed to the Lake County Food Pantry, P.O. Box 61, Madison, S.D., 57042.

Nelson indicated that in recent years, the Food Pantry has assisted around 200 families each year with food boxes and gifts for children.

"Last year, with those families, we had a record of 305 children," he said.

The goal is for each child to receive one toy and one clothing item. However, Nelson has observed that in many cases, that is the minimum a child will receive.

"The great people of Lake County that pick those angels up generally make sure they receive more than two gifts," Nelson said.

This year, two changes have been made in response to the pandemic. First, gifts will be dropped off at the Downtown Armory, which will allow more space for volunteers to social distance. Nelson said the Food Pantry is blessed in having this support from the city.

Drop-off dates are Dec. 5 and Dec. 7-9. Gifts may be dropped off on these four days between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m.

The second change is the way the gifts and food boxes will be distributed. In the past, volunteers have delivered these to families. However, with the pandemic, this option is not as safe as it has been in previous years.

"Rather than ask volunteers to deliver the food and gifts, we're asking those who receive food and gifts to drive through and pick them up by the north door," Nelson explained.

Gifts and food boxes will be distributed this year on Dec. 12 between 9 a.m. and noon.

Even with the changes and pandemic, Nelson expects the Lake County Food Pantry to continue providing children and families with a merrier Christmas than they might have enjoyed without this outpouring of community support.

"What better thing is there to do at Christmastime than for those of us who are blessed to help our neighbors?" he asked rhetorically.

SECOND PROGRAM

In addition to this annual effort, two local women -- Toni Harmdierks and Susan Glodt -- have created a Facebook group through which local families can be adopted for Christmas. Whereas the Angel Tree program provides the shelter of anonymity to both the giver and the recipient, Adopting Christmas is designed to forge a connection between the two.

Harmdierks said she launched Adopting Christmas because her young children didn't understand the concept underlying the Angel Tree program.

"Once we drop them off," she said, referring to the gifts, "they don't know where they go."

She wanted her children to have a better understanding of the season.

"I want them to learn Christmas is about giving, not getting," Harmdierks said.

Those who would like to receive some support this year, or would like to adopt a family, can go to Adopting Christmas -  Madison SD and Surrounding Area Families on Facebook. Families seeking assistance can complete an online form which asks for contact information and information about the family.

"We ask the family to give a little information about their situation," Harmdierks said.

Some of this information is then posted in the Facebook group without names. When a family is adopted, Harmdierks leaves it up to the parties involved to work out how they will handle the adoption.

"Your adopter will receive your name," she indicates. She expects the adopter to contact the family and to find out how best to offer assistance.

She has adopted a family and plans to give the family a tree, Christmas dinner and gifts. Others may choose to support their adopted families in other ways.

Harmdierks has discovered that some community members don't need the assistance themselves, but know others in need.

"There are some that are naming some other family members," Harmdierks said.

She has also discovered that some community members are willing to help others, but would like to do so anonymously. For these people, she has made arrangement for Dakota Cinema to be a drop-off site.

"Kelli [Brown] would like to be contacted before anyone drops anything off," Harmdierks said. This is to ensure nothing gets lost and there's no confusion regarding the family to receive the gifts.

To date, 53 applications have been submitted and 50 families have been adopted. Harmdierks said they will continue trying to match families through mid-December.

She also emphasized that her effort is not intended to replace the long-standing Angel Tree program. Also, a family doesn't have to choose between the two programs. If a family so desires, they can apply for both programs.

"COVID killed income for a lot of families, so Christmas is going to be a lot different," Harmdierks observed.

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