ANTIOCH -- Claudia Perry is used to working in customer service. So it comes as little surprise that most mornings she is a blur of activity inside the Salvation Army food pantry.

During a recent distribution, the 45-year-old busily bound up plastic bags filled with lettuce, persimmons, strawberries, bread and meats, then helped carry them to people's cars -- all in an effort to help some of the area's neediest get food and other assistance.

"Just seeing how grateful everyone is, it's really opened my eyes," Perry said. "You talk to them and have them cry on you, and you realize that there are people worse off than you are."

The Salvation Army, which serves all of eastern Contra Costa, provides for hundreds of families dealing with foreclosures, job loss and other financial issues, including about 80 of those through its by-appointment weekly food distribution program.

The Salvation Army also offers counseling to help struggling families prevent having their power shut off, especially during the cold season.

This time of year is the busiest and the waiting list is long, said Lt. Connie Hall, coordinator for the Antioch site. There is a waiting list of almost a month for families that take part in the thrice-weekly distributions, she said.

"That never happens," Hall said.

The likely reason is that residents are trying to stretch their tight dollars even further during the holidays to do something nice for their children or loved ones, she said.

Times certainly have been tough for Perry, who not only works part-time at the Salvation Army, but receives its services.

Unable to find a job after being laid off from Target in Fremont in 2008, the single mother of two girls, 9 and 7, found herself homeless the day after Thanksgiving after a fallout out with a roommate.

Connie Hall, left, from the Antioch Salvation Army, helps Teodora Hernandez, right, carry out her holiday box of food and bag of toys for a family of six
Connie Hall, left, from the Antioch Salvation Army, helps Teodora Hernandez, right, carry out her holiday box of food and bag of toys for a family of six in Antioch, Calif., on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group)

Hall and her husband, Purnell, took them in awhile until they got back on their feet.

Now Perry, four months sober from a methamphetamine habit, finally has saved enough money to rent an apartment.

After weeks of looking and worrying, Perry and the girls on Dec. 15 moved into an apartment with another single mother in Bay Point.

Perry works at the Salvation Army in the mornings through a volunteer training program sponsored by CalWORKs, and in the afternoons as a part-time employee at the nonprofit agency's day care center.

She receives monthly assistance through the program, and the Salvation Army pays her minimum wage for helping in the computer lab with the kids.

But, all told, the nearly $1,000 per month Perry receives still makes it tough to cover rent, bills and provide for her daughters.

"It's not enough to support a family," Hall said. "Our goal is to help them get their feet planted firmly on the ground."

Perry says she has a new commitment toward being a good mother and role model. Involvement with the Salvation Army has helped.

"(The Salvation Army) is like my new family," said Perry, adding that she and the girls attend church services there several times a week. "It's like this is my way of life now."

The Perrys' old environment is typical for a majority of the Salvation Army's clientele, Hall said.

"A lot cling to the wrong sorts of people, and we want them to get on track in a stable environment," she said. "In order to break that cycle, especially for the girls, it's about getting her and them to understand there is a better way of life."

During the holidays, the Salvation Army participates in the Share the Spirit program by distributing boxes of ingredients for a holiday meal, including a turkey or ham with all the fixings, to 389 families. The distribution includes toys for children 12 and younger in those families.

"It's a lifesaver," said Roxanne Conn, of Pittsburg, loading a box meal for four into a minivan she borrowed for the trip.

Conn, who said it is her first time signing up for the Salvation Army's distribution, found out about it through CalWORKs and Antioch's Opportunity Junction. Like many in line on Dec. 19, she is desperately searching for a job.

"Trying to find a job right now, it's just crazy," she said.

Perry signed up for the program to ensure she could provide her girls something for Christmas.

"I wanted to be able to spend a little bit on my girls. It's a blessing," she said.

It's been a frenetic year for Antioch's Salvation Army branch. Following last year's holiday season, the agency moved to its larger site at 620 E. Tregallas Road. Hall also moved to Antioch in late summer to take over operations for retired site coordinator Jackie Smith.

Despite the changes, the dire need for volunteers remains -- especially after the holidays, when the influx of help goes away.

"We have a skeleton staff. We rely heavily on volunteers and the generosity of the community," Hall said.

Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.

share the spirit
The Share the Spirit campaign, sponsored by the Bay Area News Group, benefits nonprofit agencies in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
To help, clip the coupon accompanying this story or go to https://volunteer.truist.com/vccc/donate.
Readers with questions, and corporations interested in making large contributions may contact the Volunteer Center of the East Bay, which administers the fund, at 925-472-5760.
To make a donation to the Salvation Army, call 925-778-0808, ext. 11, or go to www.usw.salvationarmy.org.