ALTONA, Illinois - The holiday season is a time for giving and this year the needs may be greater than ever.
Food banks are reporting more requests for help this year and we're not just seeing it in the big cities.
The U.S. Census Bureau finds poverty levels are actually higher in rural areas: almost one in five rural residents lives below the poverty line.
Worse yet, more than half the rural households led by a single woman are considered poor. It's 52 percent compared to 35% of women in the suburbs.
In one corner of Knox County is ROWVA country. Five small communities, including Altona, united to educate their children in the ROWVA school district. But these small rural comunties are united in another big way.
"I don't think we have to look far from our back door to know there is need," says Pastor David Pyell of United Church of Altona and Oneida.
"Even the people who live around here don't believe the need is so great," says David English.
Except the person David nominated to receive money in our "Pay It Forward" program.
Sharon Crawford is the driving force behind the one-room ROWVA Food Pantry. For the past nine years, the United Church in Altona has been the home of a food pantry that has grown as the rural residents it serves have found themselves facing deeper financial problems.
"When I originally started out, I was feeding 18 people total and about four families. Now it's 63 families and 223 individuals," says Sharon.
"It really opens your eyes that you can be in the heart of America and people can actually go hungry because there's no jobs and no money out there for them to survive," says David.
Plant closings in Galesburg have made this food pantry even more important for rural residents trying to cope with a tough economy. It wasn't that way all the time for Sharon, but it's certainly the reality today.
She says she see a lot of kids and a lot of elderly.
Each month it gets a little tougher for Sharon to fill these shelves. Canned food is often donated but the food pantry needs donated meats, paper products, and personal hygiene items before clients start arriving next Saturday.
And although she's suffered health problems that might stop others from volunteering, it seems to have only driven Sharon to do more.
"From 'Day 1' I could tell where her passion really was and it was for the people of this community and for this food pantry," says Pastor Pyell.
The reason is simple.
"I love people, I love helping people," she says.
And not only is she helping people, she's changing them as well. Look no further than here to see the spirit of paying it forward.
"It truly is modeled here in the lives of these people that not only receive, but then turn around and give back," says Pastor Pyell.
One person can make a difference.
"One person made one hell of a difference, to put it blunly. They've made a major impact in my life and a major impact in many, many people's lives," says David.