Janesville73°

Food drive comes to end

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ROCHELLE B. BIRKELO
November 21, 2009
— The UAW/GM Employee Assistance Program holiday food drive—a local tradition that for 25 years gave holiday groceries to hundreds of needy families—won't happen this year.

"It just leaves a big hole in my heart and in the community," said Marv Wopat, who with Nancy Nienhuis has led the effort since the beginning.


After two months of discussions, Wopat and Nienhuis made the heart-wrenching decision they couldn't pull off the food drive this holiday season, Wopat said.


"There's no way to get the money," Wopat said.


The end of the food drive is the latest impact from the December 2008 closure of the Janesville General Motors plant.


"Our employees were the main source of all our money. We'd go up and down the line and collect the money," Wopat said.


Loss of the food drive will be felt throughout the community.


Last year, donations of $20,000 and nearly 400 volunteers—including 150 kids—provided 375 families enough groceries for two weeks, Wopat said.


Local food pantries know this will affect them, too.


"Anytime there's less food given out in the community, it affects us because people will come to us more," said Karen Lisser, executive director at ECHO.


"People that might have skipped getting food from us in December probably will come to us," she said.


Capt. Kirk Schuetz, commanding officer at the Janesville Salvation Army, agreed: "I expect we'll be seeing more of those families coming to us for assistance."


In the beginning, the program had six volunteers and served only a handful of families, Wopat said.


In later years, hundreds of volunteers would spend a Saturday morning bagging and boxing truckloads of groceries. The effort distributed $335,000 in donations to 75,000 families, Wopat said.


Names of families in need came from GM employees, area churches and nurses at Mercy Hospital and Rock County, Wopat said.


"Our goal was to hit families that were struggling at Christmas and to make their Christmas a little better," he said.


"It was good to give them enough groceries for two weeks so they didn't have to buy groceries and might have a little extra money to take the kids to the movies or do something. We had a lot of families falling through the crack," Wopat said.


Not only did the program donate money to buy the groceries and pack them, they also delivered them.


"Probably one of the neatest things was to watch the kids and their parents laughing and management and union working together as a team. Everybody was just happy," Wopat said.


"I'd sit back and just get tears in my eyes thinking how beautiful it was. I was blessed to be able to part of it," he said, his voice cracking.


"It was the volunteers and employees who made it happen. All Nurse Nancy and I did was coordinate.


"It was the most organized chaos you'd ever see in your life."



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