Laura Ayres, a volunteer with the Keizer Community Food Bank, estimates she’s handed out about 2,000 stuffed animals to children at the food bank during the past four years. (Keizertimes/ERIC A. HOWALD)

Of the Keizertimes

Almost every Thursday the Keizer Community Food Bank opens it’s doors to those in need, Laura Ayres is there with something extra for every kid.

Sometimes it’s large, sometimes it’s small, every once in a while it’s nearly life-size, but it’s always stuffed and fluffy.

“Four years ago, I was at a garage sale where they had some beautiful stuffed animals on display and it hit me that they would make great gifts for the children who come to the food bank,” Ayres said.

She asked the proprietor what their plans were for the animals after the sale was over and then asked if they would be willing to donate their leftover stock for the effort Ayres would later dub “The Teddy Bear Express.” They took her number and called after the close of business.

“I brought home about a dozen stuffed animals that day and then I started asking at every sale I went to after that,” Ayres said. “Close to 75 percent of the people I ask simply tell me to take [the stuffed animals] with me on the spot.”

In the past four years, she estimates she’s given out more than 2,000 stuffed pals. She has a running inventory of about 900 on hand. She’s even had complete strangers drop them off at her house once they heard what she was doing.

In an average week, Ayres will typically give out 10 animals, but it’s been as few as four and as many as 20, she expects the number to start creeping up in the coming weeks.

Of late, new clients to the Keizer Community Food Bank comprise about one quarter of those who turn up at the food bank door and supplies are getting sparse.

“At the end of each opening our shelves are nearly empty,” said Nancy Morgan, an organizer with the food bank. “One week recently, we turned away four families near closing time because we didn’t have food left to give. It was a heartbreaking experience for them and for us.”

Local farmers who were able to grow additional crops to supply local food banks in past years ended up sending much of their fields’ production to the canneries due to the unusual weather patterns. Demand for food boxes is also expected to increase as the canneries close up for the season.

“Peanut butter, tuna, meals ready to eat, cereal are the most needed items, but monetary donations help cover the cost of purchasing supplies in the open market to supplement the deliveries from Marion-Polk Food Share,” Morgan said.

Unopened soap products are also in high demand.

Longtime volunteers like Ayres know the need within the Keizer community is never ending. She and her husband, Ray, have been volunteering for more than seven years. While she sought out the volunteering opportunity to simply get out of the house once a week, The Teddy Bear Express sprang into service as a memorial to her deceased daughter.

“It was something I could do to honor her,” Ayres said. “The kids’ eyes just light up and they get a great big grin. Grandparents are often just as happy as the kids. The response has been terrific,” she said.

Monetary donations may be sent to Keizer Community Food Bank, PO Box 20968, Keizer OR, 97307. Food can be dropped off at Faith Lutheran Church, corner of River Road and Cummings Lane between 5-7 p.m. Mondays, 1-3 p.m. Wednesdays, and 8-10:30 a.m. on Thursdays.