United Way agencies struggling amid recession


Garthia Elena Burnett



During a time when more people are turning to charitable organizations for help, the cash flow to those agencies also is down. And while economists say the national recession is over, those groups tell a different story. 


Helping Hands'' food pantry and monetary-help programs have had more first-time families in need than ever before. 


Twenty-one years ago when it was founded, Helping Hands primarily helped people with a sudden emergency -- job layoffs, unexpected medical expenses or natural disasters, for example. 


They would get one-time help from Helping Hands and bounce back, said Nancy Guerry, director of the agency. 


"What we''re seeing now is people are losing their jobs or being cut back to 20 hours, and that''s not enough to get by," she said. "We''re seeing new people who, though all the (setbacks) and disasters, they''ve been able to work through it, but not now." 


Recently, Helping Hands provided assistance to a young woman who had just earned her bachelor''s degree in teaching and had to take a teacher assistant position. Teacher assistants work 187 days, the same amount as certified teachers, and are paid from $12,500-$16,025 a year, depending on experience. 


"That was the only thing available," Guerry said, noting even fast-food chains and other employers used as fall-backs aren''t hiring. 


"We used to tell people, you could always get a job at McDonald''s or somewhere like that just to fill time, and those jobs don''t seem to be available now." 


From January to Tuesday, Helping Hands assisted 3,981 individuals; Guerry estimated that to be about 1,000 people more than the same time frame last year. 


"Our agencies are seeing a lot more first-time people coming to their doors," said Jan Ballard, director of United Way of Lowndes County, the umbrella organization that supports Helping Hands. "These are people who did everything right. They saved. They''ve gone into their savings. They were paying their car notes; they were paying their rent." 




Calling for help 


Contact Helpline''s crisis call center is fielding 23 percent more calls than it was last year, mainly due to people losing their jobs and then losing hope. 


"We''re getting more calls from people struggling with help (during the down economy). They need help and they''re getting discouraged because they''re not finding help," said Lindy Thomason, director of Contact Helpline, which also works as a referral service for this in need of help paying their utilities or buying food and other necessities. "As people run out of funds, there''s nowhere really to send them." 


The United Way of Lowndes County continues to dip into reserve funds to keep funding level for its 17 agencies. 




Decreased contributions 


The United Way came closest to its $600,000 campaign goal in 2002, with $575,171 pledged. Since then, collections have dropped slightly each year, with $540,560 collected in 2006, the year after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast; $534,864 collected in 2007; and $533,513 in 2008. In 2009, collections fell to $486,431. 


This year, $364,072 has been collected thus far. About $544,000 was pledged, and the agency expects to collect about $522,000, allowing for a "shrinkage factor." But layoffs, business closures and natural disasters play an unpredictable role. 


"Domtar had conducted a campaign in the fall and announced their closure after," Ballard noted. 


Domtar coated groundwood paper mill announced plans early this year to close its doors in April, idling 219 workers. 


When the recession took hold last year and layoffs became routine, United Way pledges were at $503,931; actual collections fell in at $486,471. 




Giving out of need 


Local churches have cut contributions to United Way agencies, as members have had to decrease what they put in the collection plate. But individual giving, Guerry said, has increased. 


"This is just a generous community," she said. "As Christians, we give out of our need. I think people are, in some ways, more generous because they know people are hurting." 


Those small contributions are important too, Ballard said. 


"It''s the cumulative effect of people giving that builds our campaign," she said. "Every gift is important when you think about a $25 prescription for an elderly person or $60 for gas in the Dial-A-Bus or a $250 mortgage payment for someone trying to get on their feet and keep the house they worked for." 


Ballard hopes new campaigns can make up the difference from plant and business closures and layoffs. 


"Our agencies are experiencing funding cuts from local, state, federal and foundation resources and are struggling to maintain some of their services at a time they need funding the most," she said. 


Ninety-three employers from the business, industry, education and other sectors in Lowndes County held United Way campaigns or donated to the agency last campaign year; 29 companies have completed their campaign this year or have one in progress. 




More Info 


· United Way of Lowndes County: 662-328-0943  


· Contact Helpline: 1-800-377-1643, 662-328-0200, 662-323-4357 


· Helping Hands: 662-328-8301 




On the Web 


· United Way of Lowndes County: www.unitedwaylowndescounty.org  




Top 10 United Way campaigns in 2009 


· Columbus Municipal School District: $73,400 


· Omnova Solutions Inc.: $38,745.88 


· Severstal: $35,000 


· Cadence bank: $28,506.52 


· Holcim: $28,080.19 


· Weyerhaeuser Columbus: $25,127.38 


· Trustmark: $15,500 


· Paccar: $15,400 


· Microtek Medical: $15,050.00 


· Ceco Building Systems: $9,672.09




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