Record number seeking holiday aid

Working poor need help, but charities are strained

November 09, 2003|By Cyril T. Zaneski | Cyril T. Zaneski,SUN STAFF

Reflecting an ailing economy, a record number of children are seeking toys, clothing and food in the Salvation Army of Greater Baltimore's annual holiday gift program. And the organization - like many other charities - is expecting a struggle for donations to meet the rising need.

Parents and grandparents have registered 11,129 children in the Angel Tree Program, up 20 percent from the 8,894 who received gifts a year ago, Salvation Army officials said.

Unlike past years, when most seeking help from the Salvation Army were unemployed and on welfare, people requesting help this year are minimum-wage workers who cannot afford to buy presents and still afford rent and food, said Peggy Vick, the organization's director of family services.

Among the working poor applying for help for the first time is Gaynitha Conway, a 31-year-old single mother with five children. A housekeeper at a Days Inn motel, Conway learned of the Salvation Army program at the city social services office where she sought help after a fire destroyed the house that she was renting last February.

"This program will help provide something for my children this Christmas," Conway said. "It's taking everything we have to make it. But we're making it. Barely - but we're making it."

The Salvation Army is also seeing rising numbers of grandparents requesting gifts for grandchildren who live with them and from applicants who say they are victims of domestic abuse, Vick said. The organization requires all applicants for its programs to provide proof of their income and expenses and verification that their children are 12 or younger.

"All these families find themselves in a crunch of some kind," Vick said. "They are all just trying to hold everything together and provide something for the children at Christmas."

Other charities also anticipate heavier than usual demand for services in the next two months. The Maryland Food Bank's executive director, Bill Ewing, said many of the 900 organizations statewide that provide meals to the needy are expecting they will need more food this Thanksgiving and Christmas, despite recent reports suggesting a national economic recovery is in the offing.

"It's not a scientific survey, but the word on the street is that the providers are serving more people," Ewing said.

The holiday season is crunch time for fund raising as well as giving for the Salvation Army and other charitable organizations that have struggled in recent years. "The economy makes quite a lot of difference in charitable giving," said Patrick M. Rooney, research director at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. "Giving falls ... as personal incomes and corporate profits plunge."

Contributions to major charitable organizations fell last year for the first time in 12 years, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy's annual survey of the nation's 400 largest nonprofit organizations. Donations dropped 1.2 percent last year, to $46.9 billion, from $47.5 billion in 2001, with charities noting economic uncertainty and increasing competition for donations, the publication reported Oct. 30. During the previous five years, donations increased an average of 12 percent each year.

"There's a quadruple whammy for agencies that help the poor," Rooney said. There is rising demand for their services, declining donations from individual donors, diminished endowments for foundation donors and reduced grants from strapped federal and state governments, he said.

The Salvation Army of Greater Baltimore is just beginning its major holiday fund-raising drives, which generate about 10 percent of the organization's annual revenue. The Christmas mail appeal began late last month, and the organization's bell ringers and red kettles will start appearing outside shopping centers Nov. 17, spokeswoman Lafeea Watson said.

There is some concern among the organization's leaders about so-called compassion fatigue after efforts aimed at helping victims of Tropical Storm Isabel. The Salvation Army has dispersed $194,000 of $202,334 in donations it received for storm aid, Watson said. The remaining cash will help storm victims for the holidays.

In an attempt to pump up donations in a bad economy, the Salvation Army has also launched a Web site (www.salvationarmyusa.org) for the Christmas fund-raising campaign, Watson said. "The World Wide Web program should be seen as our attempt to reach a new audience, and hold on to donors who may have switched to online shopping."

The Web site allows people to become online "volunteer bell ringers" for the Red Kettle campaign and collect donations through their customized Web site. The site also allows people to buy toys and other gifts for children in the Angel Tree program.

Likewise, the Maryland Food Bank is also trying a new program to increase donations. Through Nov. 16, the organization is making it possible for shoppers at Giant Food Stores to buy and donate a "You Can Help" box for $7.99 that includes enough nonperishable goods to provide a meal for a family.

"We all know there's a lot of competition for donations," Watson said. "The idea is to make it as easy as possible for people to give."

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