Optimists Keep Neighbors Connected

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The Rim Country Optimist Club's "subtitle" is Friends of Youth.

And it is because of the youth, members of the club work so tirelessly to make the holidays happy for the less fortunate residents of the community. It is the group that puts together the Community Christmas Food Drive program.

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Through most of its history, the Christmas food program has called the Rim Country Middle School gym home. Last year's drive was headquartered at a space in the Payson Village shopping center. Both food from the Optimists and toys from the public safety drive were distributed there.

With support from residents, businesses, churches, youth and other clubs and organizations the program keeps Rim Country neighbors connected to one another, something that benefits the entire community.

The Payson Lioness Club started the Christmas food basket program in 1986, when 167 boxes were prepared to give those in need a nice Christmas dinner.

Over the years the number of boxes prepared for distribution has varied.

The Optimists took over the program in 2002 and prepared more than 330 boxes for residents in need. The following year the number of boxes of food sent out exceeded 350.

This past Christmas, the Optimists and a crew of volunteers prepared 197 boxes for residents throughout the Rim Country.

Irma Bramlet has coordinated the program for the Optimists since the group took it over, working with a core committee of 10. And before that, she helped the Lionesses for several years.

She said the drop in numbers is due to the residency requirements participants must now meet to receive help from the program. When people sign up, they must show proof of residency with a driver's license, utility bill or something similar, and only one box of food can go to one address. The size of the boxes -- the amount of food -- varies with the number of people living at the one address.

The Christmas food drive does not formally start until the day after Thanksgiving, but each year the collection campaign is kicked off by a big contribution from Payson Concrete. At the end of October or in early November, Bramlet gets a call from the company, saying they have a truckload of food for the campaign.

Every year in October Payson Concrete conducts a special program to collect money and canned food. The money comes from a $2.50 contribution to a special fund for every yard of residential concrete the company sells, explains program coordinator Tim Hughes.

"We knock $5 off the price of every yard of residential concrete we sell in October and ask our customers to contribute a can of food for every (residential) yard purchased," Hughes said.

It is a program that has been in place for as long as Bramlet can remember.

For most of the time the food program has been conducted, the Rim Country Middle School gym has been the base of operations, later things were moved to vacant space at the Payson Village shopping center. This past year, the Optimists were invited to use the same space used by the Public Safety Christmas Toy Drive, located in Payson Village. Special arrangements were made with Safeway for the direct delivery of perishable goods the day the boxes were to be distributed.

Another change was the way people registered for the program. In the past the registration was stretched over a two-week period and it was hard to keep staffed. This year it was narrowed to only a few days, making it easier to staff.

The boxes go to residents in the immediate area around Payson, which includes Strawberry, Pine, Star Valley, Gisela, Tonto Village, Christopher Creek and Young.

It takes about 30 volunteers in addition to the Optimist committee and other members to stock the boxes.

Each year the program needs food and cash -- the cash is used to purchase the perishable items, including the meat (either turkey or ham); it is also used to buy baby goods such as formula and the food in the little jars.

"We want to take care of the whole family, and not just for the holiday," Bramlet said. "We try to give them enough food for about a week."

The club takes a break from its efforts on the program after Christmas, and then in June or July the members start planning fund-raisers and donation campaigns for the coming holiday.

The finances left over from the previous drive determine fund-raising efforts.

This past year cash donations were down, but lots of food was donated.

The most rewarding thing about the program for Bramlet, "We do it for the kids. We're very hopeful the children get the Christmas they deserve."

"There is one woman who we have helped for a number of years and every time she sees me, no matter where it is, she will come up and hug me and give me a kiss to say thank you. It's those people you know you have truly helped."

It is not necessary to be a member of the Optimist Club to help with the Community Christmas Food Drive, or any of the club's other projects -- such as the upcoming Kids Fishing Festival, to be held 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. April 21 at Green Valley Park -- volunteers are always needed. Everyone interested is encouraged to attend the club's meetings to see if the group is right for them before deciding to join. The meetings are the first Wednesday of the month at 6:45 a.m. and the third Wednesday of the month at 5:30 p.m., both meetings are at Tiny's Family Restaurant.

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