Heather Bennett never imagined at age 23 she would be permanently disabled, out of work and picking up a turkey from a local food bank so her family could have a Thanksgiving meal.
But like so many Rim Country residents, times are tough and only getting tighter with a stumbling economy forcing residents to put aside their pride and put out their hands for help.
In the last month, food pantries in Payson have seen a huge swell in the number of families and individuals seeking assistance. At the St. Vincent de Paul Food Bank, more than 2,000 people were fed in October, a huge surge from the same time last year.
Food bank organizers predict demand will continue rising throughout the holiday season, taxing volunteers and their supply of food and money to help the needy.
On Nov. 23 or “Turkey Tuesday,” volunteers handed out some 350 food boxes at St. Vincent. Each box held enough food, including a turkey, rolls, potatoes, eggs and dessert, for a complete Thanksgiving Day feast.
Bennett said without it her family, which includes her husband and two young children, would not have celebrated.
“I am very grateful,” she said standing alongside her sister Nicole Gonzales, who also picked up a turkey box Tuesday.
Although Bennett could not lift the box into to the back of her beat up pickup, given her medical condition, she was all smiles looking through its contents.
Bennett’s life did not always look this way.
After falling from a ladder at work, Bennett underwent back surgery. Although she is able to walk, she is on permanent disability. Her husband, who was working in Tucson as a plumber, had to return to Payson full-time to help look after Bennett and their two children. He now works at a lower-paying retail job.
With less income, the Bennetts are struggling to get by. Bennett said she never thought she would find herself in these shoes, especially at such a young age.
Other people picking up turkey boxes shared similar stories.
Lori Fraijo said she did not have the money this year to put together a holiday meal for the three adults and child who live in her home.
“It is hard times now,” she said.
Fraijo was grateful for the outreach of support and help from volunteers.
Mother and daughter volunteer team Janette Schuster and Beth Slate said they feel compelled to give back, having been given so much.
“I am just blessed, I have a job,” Slate said.
Slate, who works and lives in California, has spent the last four Thanksgivings handing out food boxes at St. Vincent alongside her mother.
Slate said her mother, who has worked at the Payson food bank for the last 13 years, inspires her.
Slate now volunteers her time at a food bank in California.
St. Vincent Food Bank Coordinator Wayne Parent said they were blessed with 32 volunteers on Turkey Tuesday.
“The community always comes through,” he said.
Payson Area Food Drive
While winter weather continues to push Payson’s temperatures down, the thermometer for the Payson Area Food Drive is just heating up.
Since the official launch of the townwide food drive Nov. 16, residents have donated 4,500 pounds of food and $3,000.
PAFD organizer Roger Kreimeyer said he is excited to see the community rev up for the drive. The committee hopes to collect 55,000 pounds and $25,000 by Super Bowl Sunday in February.
Last year, more than $20,000 and 50,000 pounds of food were collected, enough to keep the shelves at food banks stocked through mid December organizers estimate.
Drop food off in any Payson Area Food Drive labeled box. Several are set up at Walmart. You can also send a check to PAFD, P.O. Box 703, Payson, AZ 85547.