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Donor generosity sustains charities despite downturn

Donor generosity sustains charities despite downturn

As local charities geared up for their holiday campaigns, administrators knew they faced a challenging year. During the preceding months, trends pointed toward increasing demands for basic services, and rising commodity prices imposed extra costs for the services they provided.

Then things got even worse in October. When the Dow began to drop, so did charitable contributions, compounding the troublesomely high demand for services.

National Junior Honor Society members bring donations to the V.A.C. 25th annual Christmas program.

“I’ve been at the food bank for 16 years, and the only time I’ve seen the need as dramatic was during the flood of 1993,” said Peggy Kirkpatrick, the Central Missouri Food Bank’s executive director.

While the ’93 flood was a disaster that lasted only six weeks, the rise in demand for services began more than a year ago.

“Unlike the flood of ’93, it’s not like a monsoon or a tidal wave or anything like that,” Kirkpatrick said. “But the water has kept going up, and you keep hoping the rain is going to stop and the water would go down, but it just kept going up. That’s what’s happened the last several years-the number of people needing help just kept going up.”

Kirkpatrick said they noticed a difference in 2007, when they started seeing people come into Central Missouri Food Bank’s pantry who had never needed services before. In January, she said, the Food Bank’s pantry served 7,400 people. In November, the number was 9,700. She added that this school year, the number of Boone County children qualifying for federally-subsidized meals in school has jumped to 37 percent from 32 percent last year.

Volunteer Katie Hennrich brings gifts into the V.A.C. donation center in the basement of the Trinity Presbyterian Church.

“Anyone in basic services will tell you the same thing: we’re seeing people needing help in ways they’ve never needed help before,” she said.

Greg Abts, a student in the University of Missouri College of Business, began volunteering at the Food Bank’s pantry as part of a class requirement. But he continued volunteering even after fulfilling that requirement. At the pantry, he’s seen people who just needed a little help and people who told him they were starving.

“Every single time I’ve worked there, there’s been somebody that’s said, ‘I’ve never done this before; I don’t know the routine,'” he said.

At the Salvation Army, the need for services is up dramatically. According to Maj. Katrina Mathews, “the phone is ringing off the hook, and we have appointments set up until January.”

In October, the Salvation Army provided services to 1,224 people, she said, including 411 first-time cases. And the demand for rent and utility assistance is “astronomical.”

“It’s not just hitting one or two people, it’s hitting everyone,” Mathews said. “Services are up, but people are becoming more and more desperate.”

For 25 years, the Voluntary Action Center’s Christmas program has been providing holiday gifts to families that otherwise could not afford them. But this year, the organization had to send out a special plea two weeks before Thanksgiving because they still had 230 families without sponsors.

To meet its goal, Heart of Missouri United Way had to launch a supplemental fund-raising drive the week before Thanksgiving, and they are still actively campaigning now, long after they normally stop.

However, even with the increase in demand and the downturn in the economy, Columbians have helped local charities meet the community’s need.

Volunteer Bob Duncan sorts through a room full of gifts to make sure every family on his list is taken care of this holiday season.

The Food Bank recently received an unexpected gift: more than $160,000 from the Columbia Orthopaedic Group, allowing them to pay off the mortgage on their headquarters on Vandiver Drive.

“We decided to really focus our effort on a local charity to make a big impact,” said Randal Trecha, a doctor in the Orthopaedic Group, who, along with his wife, came up with the idea of making the large donation to Central Missouri Food Bank. “When this opportunity came up to get rid of the mortgage, we thought, ‘great.'”

And others are donating what they can, now that they can. For the first time, Jill Allen sponsored a family enrolled in the VAC Christmas program.

“I know what it’s like to have kids and not have and struggle,” Allen said. “I’m at a point in my life where I’m blessed and want to help out. I want to show my kids that you give back to the community.”

As she stood in the parking lot of Trinity Presbyterian, cars continued to pull up and volunteers helped unload the bikes, bags and gifts filling them. Lyndall Poff, who has been a volunteer for the VAC Christmas program for seven years, expressed his wonder at the amount of gifts already donated on the first day of drop-off.

“The thing that amazes me,” he said, wheeling a bicycle and a dolly too small to carry the presents piled on top of it, “I thought the amount of stuff would go down this year with the economy. But if anything, it’s gone up.”

Executive Director Cindy Mustard said all 1,209 families that have signed up have been sponsored, including 250 that have never used the program before. The program has gotten so popular, she said, low-income families will camp out the night before the sign-up day to register.

“It’s as good as ever,” she said. “All the families have been sponsored, and we’re really pleased with turnout. It was slower at first, but people really stepped up, same as last year.”

At 1 p.m. on the first day gifts were dropped off, the rooms on the first floor of the church, used to store the gifts until the recipient families pick them up later in the week, were already almost full.

David Finke, who’s volunteered for the program for 12 years, said while unloading gifts that he’s noticed people who have benefited from the program coming back to the parking lot in the same car-to give rather than receive.

“People who have been recipients come back and volunteer, and those people come back and work harder than anyone else,” he said. “This is the intersection where I see the generosity of Columbia come forth.”

At the outset of the United Way’s annual campaign, it seemed like all was going well. The non-profit’s pacesetter companies managed to raise one third of the group’s $3,250,059 goal, a 15 percent increase over what pacesetter companies raised last year.

Missouri Employers Mutual Insurance Company has done all the print work for the United Way’s campaign this year, worth thousands of dollars. And the company’s employees raised $35,000 for the United Way this year, a $6,500 increase from 2007.

“Our employees have always been a generous group,” Jennifer Peck, director of marketing communications, said. “We always challenge ourselves to do better than we did before.”

This year was VA Mortgage’s first United Way employee campaign. Sarah Duncan, an account manager and the United Way employee campaign organizer, said she was told not to expect too much on the first campaign. But in only the first few hours, the employees had raised close to $30,000. By the end of the campaign, they had raised nearly $50,000, which was matched by the company to bring the total to $100,000.

“I had originally set our goal at $20,500,” Duncan said. “Within the first hour, we blew that out of the water. I knew I worked with very giving employees, but even they surprised me on this one.”

After announcing the campaign’s initial success, things dropped off pretty quickly in October, said Pam Pearn, Heart of Missouri United Way Acting Deputy Director.

“When the Dow started plunging and people’s 401K statements started coming, people started saying, ‘I don’t know if I can afford to do this,'” Pearn said. “Things immediately slowed down. Having been personally involved with this United Way in this community since 1993, this is unlike anything we’ve seen.”

By mid-October, it was obvious the campaign was lagging behind where it usually was by that point, she said. So the week before Thanksgiving, a supplemental awareness drive, Live United Week, was launched. The group told the community that the United Way needed more help to reach its goal and began selling T-shirts, along with increasing its campaigning efforts. Others stepped up to help, too.

“We had a number of companies that had already completed their employee campaign, but who came back and said, maybe we can do a little bit more,” Pearn said.

One of those companies was Shelter Insurance. Even after raising $165,844 in their initial campaign, employees were willing to donate more, and purchased tickets to wear blue jeans to work for a day during the Live United week.

“We certainly thought we’d do well,” Don McCubbin, Shelter executive vice president, said. “But with the economic climate, you wonder whether you’ll continue to have that success. But our folks responded in great fashion.”

While United Way executive director Connie Benton Wolfe said it’s not impossible to meet the original goal set for this year; the charity is within sight of reaching last year’s goal.

“That’s pretty phenomenal given the environment,” she said. “If we get to last year’s number, I’m going to feel like that’s a major accomplishment for the community, because we know this is an unprecedented economic time.”

Even with economic uncertainty, Columbia has stepped up to meet the need. Pearn said she has heard “horror stories” from other United Way agencies about food pantries being closed down due to lack of funds. But here, she said, basic needs are still being met. The outpouring of support is, as Kirkpatrick sees it, a testament to the city’s generosity.

“This is one of the most giving places I have ever seen. It doesn’t matter what the cause is,” Kirkpatrick said. “It doesn’t matter if we’re talking the United Way campaign, or we’re talking a flood, people give what they can. It doesn’t matter if it’s a dollar bill, a can of food, or an hour of their time. People just give.”

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