Parishioners at Abiding Hope Lutheran assemble 1,000 boxes of food for struggling families

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By AJ Vicens

Back in 1987, South Jeffco resident Jim Cronin decided that he and his family should help those less fortunate on Thanksgiving.

Cronin gathered some friends from church, bought some food, and used his front lawn to assemble boxes. Cronin and his group were able to put together boxes to help 12 families celebrate Thanksgiving that year.

Twenty-one years later, that modest outreach program has grown into a massive Thanksgiving charity event based at Abiding Hope Lutheran Church. Cronin and other members of the church have expanded the program to other Denver-area churches, and even to churches across the country.

The church, at West Coal Mine Avenue and South Simms Street, came alive the night of Nov. 21, with hundreds of people assembling 1,000 boxes that will feed several thousand people throughout the area this Thanksgiving.

"Something needed to be done," Cronin said in the sanctuary at Abiding Hope, recalling the genesis of the program. "It's the way we were raised: to help people. We wanted to show our kids how to care for people."

Cronin said that, in the early days, they would deliver the boxes by hand, so the kids could see that those who may be down on their luck were not all that different from them.

The idea spreads

The effort is spreading to other churches and other states. Cronin and other church members started a similar program in a church in Mississippi to help families devastated by Hurricane Katrina. That program now helps about 200 families. And they've helped a congregation in Council Bluffs, Iowa, start an effort that also feeds 200 families.

"We're hoping it will take off and that it will spread all over," Cronin said.

But when it came to Abiding Hope's program this year, Cronin was worried that the ailing economy would mean a drop in donations.

"This year, I was concerned with the economy and didn't want to spread too thin," he said.

But his worries were unfounded. In the last two weeks, the Abiding Hope congregation raised roughly $30,000 to buy food to donate to others. The congregation received a few industrial-size donations as well, including 14,000 pounds of potatoes from a farmer near Monte Vista.

"It's the people in the congregation," Cronin said. "They just give. It makes you feel so good. They get more out of it than the people getting the food."

'What God tells us to do'

The Abiding Hope gym was a frenetic place the night of Nov. 21. A series of tables snaked through the room, and the tables were lined with volunteers, each one adding a food item as the boxes zipped along. Many people started out with coats on — the side doors were open so the boxes could be carried to trucks and vans waiting outside — but the volunteers quickly become warm with their efforts.

"This is awesome," said Judy Leidy, a Ken Caryl resident and a member of Abiding Hope. It was her second year taking part in the Thanksgiving boxes program.

"It gets pretty exciting,” Leidy said. “It's like one kid said: ‘It starts slow, and then people get going.’ "

She agreed with Cronin that the volunteers get more out of the experience than the recipients of the food.

"I think it feels good to help other people," Leidy said. "Maybe particularly this year. The economy is not so good." She added that the church will distribute maybe 2,000 boxes next year. Pointing to a stack of boxes about 30 feet across and nearly as tall as the basketball hoop, Leidy said: "Isn't it amazing that all those boxes will be filled at the end of the night?"

But, then again, the program isn't all that surprising to Leidy. "This is what God tells us to do," she said. "Help others."

Ryan VanInwegen, 12, was among several young people keeping the wall of boxes from getting out of hand.

"It's kind of exhausting," he said. "It's overwhelming." But he said he enjoyed the work. "I like helping people."

Mark Mueller, a South Jeffco resident who worships at Abiding Hope, was helping in the gym Nov. 21.

"We like making it a family event," Mueller said. "We bring the kids down."

Mueller said he and his family have been helping at the event for three years, and his children have been inspired to donate a few toys every year. A couple of his kids were having a great time throwing boxes to the top of the enormous stack. "They like it more than just because of that," Mueller said. "They would be very upset if we didn't keep doing this."

'We can work together'

Cronin is proud of the program but isn't done yet. He hopes to keep expanding.

"One day, I want to have to do this at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds, or maybe the (Denver) Coliseum," Cronin said. "And we want to get the other denominations involved."

He mentioned a Mormon church that is just down the street from Abiding Hope.

"Our beliefs are totally different," Cronin said. "But we can work together to help people."

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com.