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When the going gets tough... 

Donors help keep nonprofits afloat, but times are still difficult

THE RESIDENTS of the Old Savannah City Mission’s emergency shelter sweltered in the heat for three long months when one of two air-conditioning units failed.

Donations to the mission are down, and there simply wasn’t enough money for repairs, says executive director Jim Lewis. “We’re down 23.6 percent compared to the same period of time last year,” he says. “We’re scrambling.”

There’s no doubt people today are struggling just to put food on the table. A combination of soaring gasoline prices and rising food costs is making it difficult even to provide the basic necessities, much less enjoy a few extras. Many people are trying to work longer hours or work a second job to bring needed revenue in.

“I’m working right now on trying to sell clothing, bric-a-brac and shoes,” Lewis says. “This is forcing us to be more conscious of potential revenue through lawn service, or any labor our students can do.

“Staff, students, volunteers are all pitching in, trying to keep lights on and food on table,” he says. “It isn’t easy. We’re in tough times.”

There have been tough times in the past, but Lewis says nothing has ever had such an effect on the mission. When repairs were needed in the past, they might impact the budget, but they could be done.

Fortunately, a local business came through to help. Byrd Heating and Air Conditioning stepped in to make the needed repairs, and Lewis is grateful.

But there are even greater needs. “One thing people can do in the community is to think in terms of donating,” Lewis says. “We need food, and we have a market for clothes, shoes, toys, bric-a-brac. We’re willing to do most anything.”

The mission doesn’t depend entirely on donations, although donations are important. “I read recently where charitable giving has flat-lined over the last 30 years,” Lewis says.

“People may be giving more but percentage-wise they’re not. Small, private non-profits are turning to industrial activities, trying to collect cans and stuff that can be converted. Folks can get rid of stuff and our students can see the value of being productive. They can participate in funding their own recovery.”

The cost of fuel has severely impacted the mission. “We still try to pick up things when people donate,” Lewis says. “But our fuel costs have doubled. We try to make sure when our vehicle leaves, that it’s going to two or three places along the same route.”

As revenues fall and expenses rise, even more people are in need of help. “There’s a correlation there,” Lewis says. “This is not isolated.

“We have more people coming in who aren’t making it to the end of month, to the next payday,” he says. “They know they can come here and eat and be absolutely welcome.”

The economy has influenced donations, Lewis says. “A lot of people are holding back,” he says. “They don’t know if they might get laid off. They don’t know how much gasoline is going up. Some people are anticipating the worst that can happen. When you’re waiting for bad news, you can get it.”

In times of need, folks at the Old Savannah City Mission reach out for help. “We write letters,” Lewis says. “We’re always challenged in fund-raising. But this time, we’re dealing with genuine shortfalls. We need good-hearted people to step up to the plate and say. ‘I can do this, I can help.’

“Before, we were expanding services,” Lewis says. “This is causing us to take into account how far we go out on a limb. How long do you keep putting a little more water in the soup? With some things, we’re so stretched. We’ve got people who are trying help us in getting the word out. Those businesses that normally step up and help us are taking a second look. It’s a domino effect.”

Some non-profits are doing pretty well -- for now. “As far as food is concerned, we’re doing okay,” says Mary Jane Crouch, executive director of America’s Second Harvest of the Coastal Empire.

A fund-raising concert with headliners Stewart & Winfield was recently held. “The city and the county responded in such a generous manner,” Crouch says.

Still Crouch worries about the future. “Our transportation costs have been greatly impacted,” she says. “When we get a load of food in, we have to pay for transportation.”

Recently, Second Harvest was offered an entire truckload of corn, but almost had to turn it down. “What used to cost $600 to bring in a truckload of corn now costs $1,200,” Crouch says. “We’re finding that transportation costs are extremely high in comparison to last year. It’s something that is very concerning for us.”

Second Harvest could be facing a long-term shortage of funding, but at least they’ve got corn. “A gentleman had sent a check,” Crouch says. “I wrote a note and said ‘You’re the one who let us bring the corn in.’

“The corn was fresh and right at 40,000 pounds,” she says. “It was good, healthy food to get to people who needed it.”

It’s not just the cost of fuel that troubles Crouch. “We’re spending a lot more,” she says. “Food costs are going up. We get as much fresh produce during the summer months as we can. In winter, we have to buy a lot more food.”

Second Harvest feeds a lot of people. “In the year, we serve around 90,000 people,” Crouch says. “They must meet income eligibility as set forth by the USDA for low poverty.

“We feed 2,000 meals through our Kids’ Cafe program,” she says. “A lot of places have summer feeding programs, however, not all kids are able to go to them. Kids need to eat as much in the summer as in the winter.”

Second Harvest also is sponsoring Kids’ Cafe in Bulloch, Toombs and Liberty counties. “It’s important to feed kids, because they’re our future,” Crouch says. “We have to make sure they have food.

“One in every six people in a soup line is a child,” she says. “The numbers of children are increasing at shelters and food pantries.”

The number of applicants who are seeking help also has increased. “By the time they pay rent, they can’t put food on the table,” Crouch says. “If they don’t pay the rent, they get put out on the street.

“People didn’t get a raise because gasoline went up,” she says. “What’s happened is that it used to cost $25 to fill up a car and now it’s $40. Think how much food that extra $15 could buy.”

In just one month, Second Harvest provided enough food for 45,000 meals. There are many ways the community can help, Crouch says.

“They can conduct a food drive,” she says. “They can sponsor bringing a truckload of food in. They can go online and make a donation to us. They can sponsor a kid in Kid’s Cafe.

“They can volunteer. They can stock shelves and help us. If they give us time, it helps us keep from having to pay someone to come do something.

“We couldn’t operate if we didn’t have volunteers,” Crouch says. It’s not always about money.”

The musicians who performed at the recent concert volunteered their time. “That’s going to help us bring more food in,” Crouch says. “Everyone has something they can give to the community.”

Savannah is very generous, Crouch says. “I’ve lived all around the United States, and I’ve found that people here truly give from the heart,” she says. “They truly want the community to do well, and they respond when there is a need.”

Many donors themselves are low income, Crouch says. “It may be $5, but that $5 can bring in 25 pounds of food,” she says. “Those $5 checks keep us going.

“The big checks are great, of course,” Crouch says. “But it’s those people who do the fund-raisers at school, their bank, or church, that send us $25 because their church did a $25 love offering for us, that help all non-profits get through.”

It’s not just humans who are hurting. The Humane Society of Savannah/Chatham County is suffering not only from a loss of donations, but a drop in adoptions.

“We’re getting it at both ends,” says executive director Lynn Gensamer. “I’ll be candid when I say we’re doing better than one might expect. But donations are down. Adoptions are slower. Animals are staying a little bit longer. Until very recently, I didn’t think surrenders were up all that much. But they were up in May from last year by about 50. I’ve noticed animals in the area as if people just let them go.

“Finances are always a component of why people surrender animals to us,” she says. “They say, ‘I’m moving, and in my new apartment, I can’t have pets.’ Sometimes what it really means is they can’t afford the added security deposit.”

Gensamer worries the situation will get worse. “I’ve heard that some vets are reporting that their reservations for spaying and neutering are way off,” she says. “That’s a big hit. The consequences will impact us down the road.”

The humane society, too, benefits from small donations. “I think people realize animals are unfortunate victims,” Gensamer says. “We’re the kind of place with a lot of donations that are $25, $10 sometimes. We don’t get $5,000 gifts. Someone might say, ‘I’ve had a bad month, so I’m going to send $10 to the humane society because I know they’ve had a bad month, too.’”

The shelter has had some unfortunate luck in recent weeks. “We had to pay the deductible on our insurance from storm damage,” Gensamer says. “But people were wonderful. They were bringing towels and bleach, and all the things we needed.”

Some non-profits aren’t hurting. “Our utilities are slightly up, but not much,” says Melvin Mason, executive director of Hodge Memorial Daycare Center. “We haven’t felt the effect of it very much. Let’s hope it doesn’t get any worse.”

Union Mission, Inc. also is holding its own. “During economic downturns, our donations normally go up a little bit,” says President and CEO Micheal Elliott.

“In the social service industry, that’s often true,” he says. “People give because they’re feeling closer to homelessness or hunger, or the lack of heath care.

“They give in small increments, but more people are giving, so the dollar amount goes up. People with the least amount of money give the most,” says Elliott.

“We’re actually above budget. When you look at why, it’s because people are scared, or because a family member or friend has need of something. They’re saying, ‘I’m going to be good, I’m going to help others,’” Elliott says.

“It’s really sad sometimes when people come in and say, ‘I’ve supported you guys, and I never thought something like this would happen to me.”

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