Men and women mingled over wine and pasta and chicken dishes prepared by Bella Rosa during a business after hours at Irene's Flower Shop, 590 Main Street, on Thursday evening. They had an opportunity to see the store's floral arrangements and to sample chocolates from Sweet Shop USA that Irene's sells and includes in gift baskets.
The Monroe Chamber sponsored event was about more than networking and "elevator speeches". Everyone in attendance brought donations for the Monroe Food Pantry and the chamber presented $250 checks to both the pantry and Project Warmth, the town's home heating and energy assistance program.
Bob Sabia of Irene's Flower Shop said his store always collects donations for the food pantry in early November, but that Hurricane Sandy delayed the drive.
"We'll keep it here through next week so customers can add to it," Sabia said of the donation box.
Irene's is open Monday to Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Monroe Chamber of Commerce President Raymond Giovanni expressed his hope that the after hours events will boost the local economy during the holidays as members of the business community discover the wares fellow merchants have to offer.
Chamber membership cards also encourage Monroe businesses to patronize each other by offering discounts at member businesses.
Barbara Yeager, the town's social services director, attended the Monroe Chamber of Commerce's business after hours Wednesday night and accepted the checks on behalf of the food pantry and Project Warmth.
"Both programs are in dire straights," Yeager said. "There's an unprecedented amount of need this year. I've never seen anything like it in the 10 years I've been here."
Monroe Food Pantry has received thousands of pounds worth of donations this holiday season, but the cans and boxes of food are quickly disappearing from its shelves. And Yeager said Project Warmth started the year with $15,000, but that its coffers are nearly empty before the home heating season has begun.
Yeager said all other energy assistance programs must be exhausted before residents may participate in Project Warmth. The most a family can get from ABCD for a year is $400 and another $500 in assistance can come from Operation Fuel, according to Yeager, who said the latter is tightening its eligibility requirements.
Project Warmth is a "stop gap" program, that can be used to buy oil, gas, electricity and even wood for wood stoves, Yeager said.
Only Monroe residents are eligible, but Yeager said the situation is getting so desperate that she has received calls from people in other towns.
"It's very disheartening for anyone to be in that position, to ask for heat and food," she said. "I think food is the hardest ... to say, 'I can't afford to feed my family.'"
Yeager said fundraisers from community organizations like the Monroe Chamber of Commerce and donations from individuals are vital to keeping Project Warmth and the Monroe Food Pantry going.
"The community needs to be invested in what's happening," she said. "People in Monroe have a high median income, so they tend to think it doesn't happen here."