Bracing for a hard winter

Published 9:17 pm Friday, December 25, 2009

The results are unanimous among several Suffolk charities: The need is greater, and the resources are fewer.

“Everyone I’ve talked to is saying the same thing. They’ve had to cut back,” said Priscilla Monti, community relations coordinator in the ForKids organization, which provides resources for homeless families, including a group home in Suffolk, the Suffolk House.

“People have lost their job, their salary has been decreased or they have sudden new expenses due to the sluggish economy. People have been hit hard by this economy, and that hits us hard.”

On the flip side, charities are experiencing an increased demand.

“The need has definitely increased so much due to the results of the economy and the cutbacks — and then the nor’easter hit,” said Dani Ayers of the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia. “All those things have created a perfect storm for the holiday season.”

Taking on water — fast

The Salvation Army of Suffolk is one of many local charities having a difficult time making ends meet. Donation kettles, which have become a holiday staple in front of many stores, have raised $30,000 fewer dollars than last year, and mailed-in donations have taken a plunge, as well.

“I haven’t been in any appointment in my whole 30-year career where I’ve seen funds so much lower than the previous year,” said Major Cal Clatterbuck of the Salvation Army. “It’s been more hectic, and we’ve worked harder this year. But we’ve received less than we have in the past. We’re still delivering stuff and giving out toys for emergency situations. It’s just increasing non-stop, though.”

ForKids reported December 2009 as the largest challenge it has faced in 20 years. In addition to a 25-percent decrease in donations, the organization’s government funding was cut back from 85 percent to 45 percent, and it’s serving twice as many clients. To meet the budget for the year, leaders said, the charity must raise a half million dollars by Dec. 31.

Seven years ago, Ayers said, the food bank was entirely supported by donations. To meet needs this year, a million dollars in food and child nutrition programs were purchased. Since last year, the number of people needing assistance has increased by 32 percent. The food bank is expecting to experience a further 21-percent increase in 2010.

The case is similar for the Genieve Shelter, a shelter for families who are escaping abuse, which has seen donation fall by 25 percent. The shelter already has cut out a full-time position and cut back a full-time position to part-time.

“We can’t cut back anything more, but if we have to it would be anything that isn’t directly funded by a grant,” said Val Livingston, director of the Genieve Shelter. “The services we provide offer an opportunity for women and children who are looking for a new lifestyle. We help save lives by giving them a safe place to live.”

Impact of

fewer donations

The services local charities provide are integral to maintaining the balance of a healthy society. Without them, an untold number of people would be without food, homes, clothing and — in some cases — lives. Leaders for those organizations say the services cannot safely be cut back.

“As funding becomes shorter and shorter, you have to just find things that can be cut back,” Monti said. “You can cut out a music program or an educational program, but you can’t cut out food. You can’t cut gas money to get people to doctor’s appointments. There are very concrete choices that have to be made.”

While ForKids took in 529 people in November, it had to turn away 110 people, 48 adults and 62 children, due to housing capacities.

“That’s with heavy heart that we had to do that,” Monti said. There are still 128 families who are waiting for shelter from ForKids.

“People still want to give; they just can’t give as much or in the same way they used to,” said Ashley Green development director for the American Red Cross chapter in Suffolk.

Volunteers are an integral part of any charity’s efforts, and gifts are always welcome and often needed, but “an organization still needs money to operate,” said the Genieve Shelter’s Livingston. “Gifts and food baskets are nice and great, but they can’t take care of your operating expenses.”

Red Cross of Suffolk has seen its direct-mail donations drop by more than a quarter, according Ashley Greene. Fortunately, the organization hasn’t had to drop any services yet.

“We have done some overhead expense cutting,” Green said. “No one is getting any pay raises, but we still offer a full array of health and safety classes. It’s because we’re as creative as we are and have such a great volunteer base that we aren’t worse off.”

When times get tough …

Creative fundraising and a strong volunteer base is what is keeping many charities afloat. Charities are making an increased effort to lobby foundations, corporations, and the community.

“We have been working non-stop to try to get corporate, foundation and community support,” Monti said. “We’ve been in front of dozens of community groups this month, and 5,500 requests went out with the annual campaign card.”

The Food Bank has taken measures to educate the community on the needs it’s facing by developing an ad campaign: “One in four people are affected by hunger.”

“It has really resonated in people,” Ayers said. “If you educate the community, people will step up and do what they can. They volunteer and dig out food to donate. All those things count.”

“If it’s one thing I’ve noticed about Suffolk that sets it apart from any other appointment I’ve been on, it’s if the community knows about a need, they’re going to help with it,” the Salvation Army’s Clatterbuck said. “Suffolk helps Suffolk. It’s just tremendous.”

There is no telling what the need will look like in coming months, and the charities are preparing for the worst.

“People are thinking about helping others and hunger right now, because it’s the holidays,” the Foodbank’s Ayers said. “Our toughest time will come during the first months of the new year, because people forget about hunger. It’s an issue that happens every single day of the year, and we don’t close our door and turn people away.”

While charities are bracing for a storm in coming months, “We’ll be praying a lot,” Clatterbuck said.