MECOSTA, OSCEOLA, LAKE COUNTIES -- The holidays can be an exciting time for families and especially for children, but it can also be a stressful time if families are struggling.

Organizations are available to assist families during the holidays and throughout the year.

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services offers several programs to help those who need assistance.

Temporary cash assistance is available for pregnant women and low-income families with minor children who meet eligibility requirements. If you receive cash assistance, you may be assigned to the JET (Jobs, Education and Training) program to assist in finding a job or developing job skills.

Temporary food assistance is available through the U.S. Department of Agriculture for eligible families.

In addition, assistance with heat and utilities is available for individuals who are in danger of having their service shut off. Payments may include the amount needed to restore or continue service up to 30 days, or charges to deliver a 30-day supply of deliverable fuel.

MDHHS offers immediate help with emergency hardships that may threaten a family's health and safety. The State Emergency Relief (SER) program and the Weatherization Assistance Program offer financial assistance and contracts with a network of local organizations to help low-income households.

Emergency support is available to help families that are normally self-sufficient, who may need help for unexpected financial emergencies.

To receive these services, individuals are encouraged to use the MI Bridges website to see if they are eligible and to apply for services.

MI Bridges is an online application system where individuals can explore resources available for assistance, apply for specific assistance, and manage their case. The online system can streamline the application process.

Individuals also can apply in person at the local MDHHS office. In Mecosta and Osceola counties, visit 800 Tower Road, Big Rapids, or call (231) 796-4300. In Lake County, visit 5653 S. M-37, Baldwin, or call (231)-745-8159.

Mid-Michigan Community Action Agency

Mid-Michigan Community Action Agency (MMCAA) is one of the local organizations that contracts with MDHHS to assist individuals with heat and utilities.

MMCAA outreach coordinator Rae Staley said the organization can assist with heat and utilities year-round but requires an individual to apply through MDHHS via the State Emergency Relief program.

"If an individual is in danger of having their service shut-off, we can help them get a 30-day hold on the account to avoid the shut-off," Staley said. "Individuals can apply through DHHS via SER for sewer and water assistance, as well. This program can help with up to $300, and can assist with broken pipes, septic plumbing and water bills."

Individuals are encouraged to apply for assistance online through MI Bridges Navigator, Staley said.

"I can assist with the online application in my office,' Staley said. "We can also assist with SER co-payments and signing individuals up who qualify for the Affordable Payment Plans through DTE and Consumers Energy."

MMCAA also has two supplemental food programs available to households with low-income.

The Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) provides a free box of food to qualified senior citizens on a monthly basis. Participants must be at least 60 years old and meet income eligibility requirements.

"We provide a monthly food box to individuals in Mecosta and Osceola counties," Staley said. "If the household income qualifies, each senior in the home can receive a monthly box."

The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) provides a free box of food to any qualified family on a quarterly basis.

"Anyone in need of emergency food would qualify, as well as those who receive WIC, FIP or SNAP, and if their child receives free or reduced school lunches," Staley said.

TEFAP is distributed in March, June, September and December each year.

Food boxes can be picked up at local distribution sites. In Mecosta County, those sites are Resurrection Life Church, Big Rapids, and Wheatland Township Hall, Remus. In Osceola County, it's the Evart Moose Lodge, Marion VFW Post, and Reed City United Methodist Church.

For additional information in Mecosta County, visit 14330 Northland Drive, Big Rapids, or call (231) 660-0271; in Osceola County visit 240 E. Church St., Reed City, or call (231) 791-7078.

Salvation Army

The Salvation Army Energy Assistance program provides energy assistance to individuals and families in Mecosta, Osceola, Lake and Newaygo counties.

The program is made possible through partnerships with People Care, a home-health service, Michigan Energy Assistance Program (MEAP), a state established assistance program administered through MDHHS, and other area organizations.

Rental assistance is also available. Individuals can apply for assistance through the social services staff at the local office. Proof of sufficient income and legitimate need are required.

During the holiday season, The Salvation Army assists families with temporary needs by providing food, utility, rent and other assistance.

Individuals and families seeking emergency assistance are seen by appointment at the Big Rapids Corps Community Center at 325 Linden Ave. Each applicant will receive individualized support from a case worker.

To make an appointment, call (231) 796-5597.

Other organizations available to assist those in need during the holiday season and throughout the year include the local food pantries.

Project Starburst

Project Starburst is a local nonprofit food bank serving Mecosta and Osceola counties.

The monthly grocery program provides food and other personal items to residents who are experiencing a temporary need for assistance.

"We will help individuals and families once a month, every month," Project Starburst director Diane Long said. "We provide around 40 meals per person each month."

Individuals are required to complete an intake form providing the name and birthday of each member of the household, their address, county of residence and income.

"Services are walk-in, and no one will be denied food assistance," Long said. "The intake is quick, and wait time is generally short. Since we serve over 300 families each month this time of year, food and cash donations are always needed."

Project Starburst is located at 120 S. State St., in the United Church of Big Rapids. For additional information, call (231) 796-5342.

Happy Tails

Happy Tails Dog Grooming, owned by Misty Hodges, in Reed City, recently opened a food pantry for families and their pets.

"I would rather feed people and pets in need, than see them go hungry," Hodges said. "That is why I started the food pantry."

Happy Tails Food Pantry is located behind the dog grooming business, and is open 24 hours, seven days a week for anyone who is in need.

"We use the honor system," Hodges said. "You can come anytime and get what you need. Donations are always welcome. Take something, leave something, whatever the need may be."

Hodges said the pantry is well-stocked right now. She depends mostly on customers and friends to provide donations, but any donations are welcome.

Happy Tails is located at 336 N. Chestnut St., Reed City.

Bread of Life Food Pantry

Bread of Life Food Pantry in Baldwin services residents of Lake County.

Assistance is available to anyone in need. Individuals are asked to show proof of residency.

The facility is open on Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and is located on 9th Street, between St. Ann's Catholic Church and St. Ann's Senior Center.

Our Brothers' Keeper

Our Brothers' Keeper provides temporary housing for individuals and families that are homeless or are transitioning into more permanent housing.

The facility is open from Nov. 1 through May 1 each year, and has the capacity to house up to 35 individuals.

New guests can register between 4 and 8 p.m. weekdays, and 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday.

Separate sleeping facilities are provided for women and men, with rooms dedicated for families.

Limited storage space is available for personal belongings. Guests have access to a kitchen, TV area and computer, as well as access to agencies assisting in finding permanent housing, employment and health services.

Our Brothers' Keeper is located at 405 S. 3rd St., Big Rapids.

For more information call (231) 629-8033.