Tough Times Don't Overshadow People's Goodness

THE OBSERVER

December 29, 1991|By Mark Guidera

It's been a rough year all around, no question about it.

The recession and building-boom-turned-bust has dragged the state budget intoa quicksand field and threatens to do the same to the county government budget.

At the agencies which assist people in need, many can be found trying to salvage all they worked for and built over the good times. A sad daily ritual at the county Housing Office are faces never seen before appearing at the door. For the first time in their lives, these once-upon-a-time middle-income wage earners are aching for help with housing, food and everyday bills they can't pay.

For those who rely heavily on private and public assistance programs, such as the women at the Bel Air-based Mann House program for alcoholism, the year proved a hungry wolf. The program came to an unsettling end because of the state budget collapse.

So as we creak open the door of 1992 and look back at 1991, it is easy to see only gloom behind and storm warnings ahead.

But 1991 had some very bright moments and, perhaps, if we look back on these awhile, they will give us a sense that a lotof good can be accomplished despite the storm winds of the day.

Among my favorite high notes of 1991:

* The 5,000 new toys donated by county residents to the Department of Social Services for the annual Christmas drive for its Neighbors in Need Program, which assists families on public assistance throughout the year to make ends meet.

The number of Christmas toys donated exceeded all expectations. Notonly were holiday toy and food donations up, so were small donationsof money from individuals.

"The response this year has been the greatest that we've ever seen," said Joy Rich, program director. Rich worried that she might not be able to meet her goal of collecting gifts for 2,000 families, but that goal was surpassed in a big way. Which says a lot about the big good heart of the Everyman in the county.

* The opening in August of Echo House, the county's first shelter for families in desperate need of housing.

There are two big things to like about Echo House. First, its aim is to offer shelter and support to families in a crisis. And second, it's not a handout.

In the past, non-profit organizations in Harford have offered temporary shelter to women and children, but left men out on their own. In the case of abuse, that is done with good reason, of course. But sometimes there is no call for separating the family.

Government vouchers for temporary shelter mostly are accepted by area motels and inns that offer less-than-homey surroundings. Plus, that type of shelter is very temporary, puts the family in a gypsy lifestyle, keeps kids out of school and engenders dependency.

The Echo House program, a combined effort of county government, Catholic Charities and ECHO, a consortium of churches and synagogues in Harford, aims to break the dependency chain. Residents pay rent, chip in on house chores and must either seek employment or further their education or job skills. Opening of the home, located near Street, is a testament to the value of helping people help themselves.

* The Fallston students who lead a drive to have school employee smoking banned in public schools. The dozen or so kids who lobbied the Board of Education on the issue proved that not all the bright ideas come from adults and snapped the myth that today's teens are apathetic.

They also gave Harford residents arefreshing, old-fashioned lesson in civics: If your idea is for the public good, press on with it. The critics and skeptics will crumble in time.

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