As the Lockport Salvation Army prepares to serve its annual Thanksgiving dinner today, its leader says the organization is being swamped with calls for assistance -- more calls than it can answer.
Maj. John Wheeler said that in the last two months, calls seeking help from the chapter have quadrupled, to 80 to 100 calls a week. And he doesn't know why.
"We're trying to figure out what's causing it," Wheeler said. "It seems all the other agencies in town are referring people to us."
Niagara County Social Services Commissioner Anthony J. Restaino is baffled. He says his caseworkers have not seen any recent upswing in applications.
"I don't think there's been any noticeable change," Restaino said.
Wheeler said Social Services has been sending people his way and speculated that there might have been cuts in benefits. Restaino said that this is not the case.
He said, "We would probably refer people to the Salvation Army if they needed immediate help before we could open a case." Also, someone who did not qualify for public assistance for some reason might be referred.
"There have been situations where people have been released from the hospital and need to get prescriptions and they have no health insurance," Restaino said.
Wheeler said calls for help with rent, utility bills and paying for prescription drugs are exceeding the Army's resources.
"There's absolutely no way we can help all of them. We have to go on a case-by-case basis. We take the most extreme cases," Wheeler said. "We know we have to say no to a lot of people."
Organizers of today's dinner do not plan to say no to anyone if they can help it, although they have tried to make things a little easier on themselves this year.
"This year, we've gone with the rolled turkey," said Al Sammarco, one of the retirees from the former Harrison Radiator plant who runs the dinner for the Salvation Army. "We're going to cook 220 pounds and about six birds. It's less work. In years past, we had to cook 45 birds."
Last year, Sammarco and his friends Jack Rinaldo and Wayne Wagner served up 550 meals, with the help of other volunteers who drove the meals to shut-ins across the city and surrounding area. "It wouldn't surprise me if we have even more this year."
This is the 16th year for the meal, which hews closely to the traditional menu: turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, cranberries and vegetables.
"Without Jack [Rinaldo], this never would have happened. He's the cook. He used to be a caterer," Sammarco said.
Calls for delivered meals have been steady, Wheeler said. People who need meals may call 434-1276 as late as this morning. Servings at the Salvation Army, 50 Cottage St., run from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Donations of turkeys at this point would be set aside for Christmas dinner, Sammarco said, but anyone who wants to donate a pumpkin pie for dessert today should just bring it to the Salvation Army.