?We were dirt poor,? said Weaver, president of the Petaluma Coordinating Council, the organization that runs the Christmas Cheer program. ?I woke up one Christmas morning and there was a pile of boxes from the Salvation Army in our home. I remember getting an evening bag, which I really didn?t use, but it was the wonderful thought that stuck in my mind ? someone cared. Since then, I?ve felt that I needed to do the same thing to help someone else. To me, we all owe the community a little bit. That?s how I feel, at least. If everyone pitches in, it makes things easier for everyone.?

Weaver has been volunteering with the council and Christmas Cheer for six years. The program, which is run by volunteers, provides boxes of food and toys to hundreds of needy Petaluma-area families and senior citizens during the holidays.

Weaver learned about the program through longtime Christmas Cheer volunteer Joe Mauro.

?It was a case of it being a wonderful organization with a lot of wonderful people working together,? said Weaver. ?Joe had me come to a meeting on Christmas Cheer, and after I went to that, I knew this was what I was looking for.?

The Christmas Cheer program was founded in 1957 by members of various local churches and organizations that decided to combine their individual efforts to help the needy into one, organized entity ? the Petaluma Coordinating Council. The council took on the task of holiday time food basket distribution, which was the start of the Christmas Cheer program.

Last year, the program gave food baskets to 758 Petaluma families and seniors and new toys to 1,785 children.

?I?ve been on the other side of it,? said Weaver of helping the less fortunate. ?I remember one year at Christmas Cheer we had some people affected by hurricane Katrina win a bicycle in a drawing. They came to pick it up and the girl started to cry and said ?there really is a Santa Claus.? Things like that make you feel good about what you?re doing.?

With the state of the economy and unemployment rising rapidly, the Christmas Cheer program is expecting to have more families needing assistance this holiday season. The concern, however, is how the tough times will affect much needed donations.

?We?re concerned about donations every year,? said Weaver. ?But I think every volunteer in every organization is very worried about this year. All you hear about now is people getting layed off and businesses closing. All we can say is that we?ll do the best we can. If everybody can give just a couple of cans of food, it will help.?

Weaver said that many local organizations and businesses have always been there to support the program. ?The Petaluma Grocery Outlet, for example, donated 750 turkeys to us this year,? she said. ?The fire departments have helped us a lot too. We?ve had a lot of help from many places.?

The Christmas Cheer Program is also seeking help from the community to help make sure every resident has a happy holiday season.

The most needed food donations this year include canned fruit, tuna, chicken, tomato products, vegetables and packaged rice, beans and pasta. Toy donations needed include safe toys, games, puzzles, non-toxic crayons, games balls and children?s bicycles. Donations of money to purchase gifts or food, or gift certificates to local toy stores, are also welcome.

?All the donations stay here in the Petaluma area and are not sent to other communities,? said Weaver. ?We are a volunteer staff. No one gets paid. All the money donated is spent for food and toys.?

Thanks to Maribeth D?Amato, property manager of Equity Office Properties, Christmas Cheer?s donation center returns to its location at 1179 N. McDowell Blvd., Suite A. Hours of operation are from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday; and from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays Nov. 29 through Dec. 18. Food and toy barrels will also be placed around town at locations to be announced.

For more information on Christmas Cheer, call 763-8368.

(Contact Yovanna Bieberich at yovanna.bieberich@arguscourier.com)