Editor's Note: This is the first installment of a four-part series in which The Columbia County News-Times will examine poverty in Columbia County in a time of festivities and giving thanks.
Poverty has a face in Columbia County; actually, it has more than 4,500 faces.
"Most people look at Columbia County as an affluent area, and most certainly we are, but there are a lot of people out here that are in desperate need of help," said Lou Reda, the director of the Columbia County Cares food pantry.
Henry Lee McFall and Juanita McFall, of Grovetown, have come to Columbia County Cares for help when money has been tight.
Henry Lee, who works in manufacturing, injured muscles in his right shoulder and had to take time off work. Juanita is on medical disability, and she and her husband recently took in their son, who was homeless, they said.
"It's kind of a hard time because of bills and stuff," Henry Lee said. "I'm the only one making anything and just about everything I make goes out in bills."
According to U.S. Census records from 2000, the most recent data available, more than 4,500 residents of Columbia County live below the federal poverty line. That amounts to about 5.1 percent of the county's population in 2000.
Columbia County Cares provides about 30 pounds of nonperishable food, or about a week's worth of groceries, to an average of 300 families a month, Reda said. Around Thanksgiving and Christmas, that number jumps to 400 families, Reda said.
Columbia County Cares also provides the fixings for a Thanksgiving meal, including a turkey, corn bread mix, dressing, vegetables and cranberry sauce to about 400 families.
Columbia County Cares works hard to provide food to many families and county residents are generous, Reda said, "but when you look at the (poverty) demographics, it's not a drop in the bucket."
Columbia County residents donated more than 52,000 pounds of food and more than $31,000 to the It's Spooky to be Hungry food drive this year, leader Evelyn Browne said after the totals were gathered earlier this month.
The drive tallied more than 97,000 pounds of food in all and more than $52,000 in donations to help feed families throughout the Augusta area.
Barry Forde, the associate director of Golden Harvest Food Bank, said his food bank, which supplies Columbia County Cares and other food providers in the county, distributed more than 466,000 pounds of food in the county between Oct. 1, 2004, and Sept. 30 this year.
"About 65 percent of those we serve are either children under the age of 18 or elderly over the age of 65," Forde said. "A great deal of that food goes to the two age groups who really have the least control over whether or not they have the resources to have adequate food supplies."
In Columbia County, most of the poverty is seen in rural, elderly populations that do not work and have difficulty finding work if their limited means are overburdened, Forde said.
Another large percentage is made up of the working poor such as the McFalls, who scrape by to pay mortgages, car payments and credit debts when an illness or major capital expense strikes, Forde said.
"The thing about Columbia County is you have this pretty fairly defined and wide gap between the haves and the have nots, just on an economic plane," Forde said.
Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross said the county covers the overhead of Columbia County Cares and provides meals and discounted public transit to seniors through senior center, but most of the county's resources for the poor are directed toward the Augusta Judicial Circuit Indigent Defense Fund.
"We're a very affluent county, and the percentage of poverty is as low as any area around," Cross said.
The Columbia County Senior Center provides 15- to 17-pound bags of groceries from Golden Harvest once a month to 75 low-income seniors and about 160 free meals Monday through Friday to seniors, said Jeff Asmann, the center's manager.
Of the 160 free meals that are not based on income, 135 are home-delivered, Asmann said.
"They have to be in some kind of hardship" to receive delivered meals, Asmann said. "A medical condition, living alone - it doesn't have to be a financial situation."
"Any time there is a need it should be addressed," Cross said. "(The poverty) situation is better suited for the private sector if it can happen like the Salvation Army and Rescue Mission and other charities that work with primarily the homeless and poverty-ridden areas. We're very fortunate. We have very few of those because much of the population is employed, even though it may not be in the highest-paying situation."
Recently, Cross, county Commissioner Tommy Mercer, concerned members of the public, Wesley United Methodist Church and area businesses pooled resources to build a home at no cost for Wayne and Hazel Whitfield, of Evans, after their roof was destroyed by a fallen tree last year and their house was condemned.
"I think the political leaders have an obligation to address these things, kind of like we did with that house," Cross said. "We knew we couldn't spend a lot of tax dollars on that house, but we pulled together some people who had an interest ... Part of our function not just as elected officials but as public servants and as Christians ... is to look after the less fortunate."
David Titus, the president of Columbia County Cares, said one of the best ways people can help his organization is to give a monetary donation.
"Money is most important to us because if we have an item not on the shelf out here and not available at Golden Harvest, we have to go shop for it like anybody else," he said.
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