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Families receive food, gifts from Salvation Army

| Friday, Dec. 20, 2013, 10:45 p.m.
Cindy Shegan Keeley | Daily News
McKeesport Salvation Army commanding officer Major Sean Barton gets a hand from volunteer Dylan Ernst, a McKeesport Area High School senior, with bags of toys and boxes of food for distribution to hundreds of needy McKeesport area families.

Some of the best weather the Mon-Yough area has had in weeks greeted those who lined up for more than a block for the first of two days of toy and food giveaways at the McKeesport Salvation Army center.

With fair skies and temperatures in the 50s on Thursday afternoon, some of the 406 families expected to get aid from this year's two-day Army Christmas distribution.

That's down by 100 families from a year ago, the center's commanding officer and pastor Major Sean Barton said, “but we're serving it seems the same number of children.”

Barton has volunteers to help, along with the McKeesport center staff.

“My mom got me into this,” said volunteer Dylan Ernst, who has come to the center at 821 Walnut St. for the past three years. “I like doing it. It is fun helping people.”

Dylan is a senior at McKeesport Area High School. Volunteering is a family affair for Melissa Ernst and now two of her youngsters.

“My sister Alex usually is here but she was on a field trip (on Thursday),” Dylan said. Alex is a sixth-grader at White Oak Elementary School.

Barton said he sends letters to the Ernst siblings' respective schools asking to excuse them because they're volunteering.

The fair skies and a warming trend predicted to continue into the weekend is a far cry from much of what has faced other Salvation Army volunteers who ring the bells during the shortened red kettle season.

“We're going to be close,” Barton predicted. “I don't know if we are going to make what we did last year.”

But he expected the final total to be within $2,000 to $3,000 of a goal of $49,000. As of Monday the McKeesport total was just under $29,000.

Also as of Monday, kettles were down in service areas for the Braddock and Steel Valley centers. The Army has service units in Elizabeth, Irwin and Manor as well.

McKeesport Army officials said someone dropped a check for $1,000 in an area kettle. It was not known if the check will clear.

Kettles serving the McKeesport center are located at Giant Eagles along O'Neil Boulevard, in Oak Park Mall and in North Versailles Township, Shop'n Save at Olympia Shopping Center, World of Values in White Oak's Rainbow Village Shopping Center, and Wal-Mart, Big Lots and Kmart in North Versailles.

McKeesport's Salvation Army had toys, food and gift certificates for families from the old Tube City, as well as Glassport, Port Vue, Bunola, Coulter, White Oak, Boston, Greenock and North Versailles Township, Barton said.

“They'll get a box of food that contains a Christmas dinner, a $10 voucher for a turkey from the Shop'n Save and, basically, three toys per child,” center case manager Bruce Hall of Apollo said.

While the money donated to area red kettles goes toward the year-round operation of the respective centers, The Salvation Army in Southwestern Pennsylvania gets help for holiday dinners from another seasonal drive.

Hall worked for 11 years for Trib Total Media and his daughter works at its Newsworks in the North Hills. Trib Total Media includes The Daily News in McKeesport and sponsors Operation Santa Claus.

Operation Santa Claus works in conjunction with Shop'n Save/Supervalu and The Salvation Army in areas covered by Trib Total Media papers.

Trib Total Media has conducted Operation Santa Claus since 1984. It serves more than 7,000 families.

The operation's volunteers raise money to purchase canned fruits and vegetables, stuffing mix, scalloped potatoes, corn bread, crackers and sweet treats for the food boxes as well as the vouchers.

The goal for Operation Santa Claus this year is $120,000. Organizers say a $17.25 donation will pay for a dinner for a family of four.

More details on Operation Santa Claus are available at or by calling 724-838-5166.

Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.