Kent Roosevelt students help out during the season of giving


Toys and food fill the gymnasium of the old Ravenna High School in Ravenna in preparation for over 900 Portage County families in need of help this holiday season. The Center of Hope will be giving away the donations to families next Wednesday, Dec. 14. Photo by Monica Maschak.

Taylor Rogers

Katrina Beck-Smith, a single mother of three from Ravenna, said she could usually give her children a decent Christmas.

But after being diagnosed with a rare lung disease — so rare that her doctor said only 45 others in the world have had it internally — her health forced her to quit school and her job. The 36-year-old said she wasn’t sure what Dec. 25 would look like for her family.

“I was just so broken-hearted about Christmas this year,” she said. “I just did not know what I was going to do this year, and I was just so upset.”

Then a friend introduced her to the Center of Hope and Kent Social Services’ Christmas toy and food giveaway, a program available for area Portage County families in need.

Anne Marie Mann, director of emergency outreach services at Family and Community Services, said 15 percent more families have registered for the giveaway this year compared to last year.

She said the economy has very obviously taken its toll on the county.

“A lot of families are paying more for health care or their health care has been cut,” Mann said. “More of the working poor just can’t stretch it any longer. It’s a huge issue.”

Beck-Smith can relate. She said her disease, called pyoderma gangrenosum, has resulted in outrageous medical bills. Her son also battles juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and reflex sympathy dystrophy, so she said she needs all the help she can get.

She’s one of over 1,000 signed up to receive food and toys for her family Dec. 13 and 14 at the old Ravenna High School.

Over 1,000 boxes line the floor of the gymnasium there, waiting to be filled with mixed vegetables, rice, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce and other canned foods. Registered families will also receive a turkey.

Tables, soon to be lined with volunteers, are labeled so those helping know which foods to place in the boxes. A station filled with donated toys and cosmetics will be available for the families as well.

Deanna Kline, coordinator for the giveaway, has been organizing the program for seven years and volunteering there for 17.

“I enjoy helping people,” Kline said. “I know the work that goes into it, and I appreciate what everyone does and all the people that are so giving, so I just keep coming back.”

Kline and Mann said they’re still very much in need of food and toys, as the number of families continues to increase with each registration date. Tuesday marked the last day for families to register, but the Center of Hope and Kent Social Services will continue to take food, toy and monetary donations.

Kline, 76, said the old high school has proved to be an ideal location for the giveaway. She’s unsure of where they’ll hold it next year, as the high school is set to be demolished.

“We’re at the mercy of the community as far as if there’s an open space, a building vacant,” Mann said.

But Kline added the community always pulls through. The Portage County Sherriff’s department often brings inmates to help pack the boxes; Ravenna High School students come in to volunteer; and Kent Roosevelt brings students to help as well. Local churches and Giant Eagle make donations, and L’Oreal USA, Inc. gave bags full of cosmetics for the first time this year.

“It takes a lot of hands to be able to pull this together,” Kline said.

She’s witnessed a lot of gratitude in her 17 years, a testimony to the hard work put forth by so many volunteers and community partners.

And she said though it’s difficult for her to see families with so little, she expects Dec. 13 and 14 to be rewarding.

“There’s a lot of tears that day too because people come in and they see all the toys, and they didn’t think they were going to be able to get anything,” Kline said. “They just break down.”

Mann agreed.

“While it’s a stressful time for us, it’s a stress-reliever for the families,” Mann said. “And that’s what it’s all about — knowing they’re going to be able to provide a meal and a holiday for their children.”

Contact Taylor Rogers at [email protected].