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Make a Difference Day kick starts season of giving

Carmen Musick • Oct 17, 2009 at 12:00 AM

Everyone feels the pinch during an economic recession. Nowhere is that more evident than with the many non-profit agencies tasked with serving the community’s needs. Tough economic times, like those being felt around the region, find local agencies being squeezed between either flat or declining revenues and increasing demand for their services. Having cut staff and, in some cases, services, the agencies find themselves headed into the holiday and winter season with a growing list of needs and mounting concerns that many households may be simply too strapped to give — or, worse yet, in line for the services they once helped to provide.

“We get the sense that our line is probably going to be stretched and taxed more than before,” said Capt. Brian West of the Kingsport Salvation Army.

“The shopping spree was our first indicator. We had families who typically don’t need our services coming in. And, now, we’re getting e-mails asking for assistance and asking where to sign up for services. We’ve never really had that tech-savvy segment of the population seeking us out. People are telling us, ‘We’ve never had to do this before’ so we’re seeing a different client base coming in, and we really don’t know what we face in the next couple of months,” he said.

“How bad will it be? We really don’t know. That story is yet to be told. We still have the regulars. Those don’t go away. And now we get the sense that new people are coming.”

Of One Accord Ministry, a non-profit organization serving the needs of low-income families and individuals in Hawkins and Hancock counties, is feeling the same squeeze. Support is down slightly, while the need for services is on the rise.

“Our increase in 2009 has been 1,768 people more than this same time last year,” said Sheldon Livesay, the ministry’s executive director. “And the people coming to us are in more critical shape than they were last year. People are hurting worse across the board.”

Fortunately, for local agencies, this community has a reputation for giving and for stepping to the plate when the heat is on.

“We’re so thankful to live in a community where people do care about their neighbors. People are struggling to give, even though they are feeling pinched themselves,” Livesay said.

A season focused on giving gets an official kickoff of sorts on Oct. 24 with USA WEEKEND Magazine’s annual Make a Difference Day. Held each year on the fourth Saturday of October, Make a Difference Day is an all-encompassing national day of helping others — a celebration of neighbors helping neighbors through various acts of community service.

The Shepherd Center, for example, is holding a collection drive for personal and safety items for low-income older adults in the greater Kingsport area. Eastman, Domtar, civic groups and local churches are already hosting collection bins to gather the items, and a community collection is slated for Saturday in the Food City parking lot on Eastman Road. The project, the Shepherd Center’s first Make a Difference Day project, is one of thousands registered with the DAYta Bank, a national clearinghouse for Make a Difference Day projects.

Locally, dozens of agencies are working together to weather the tough economic times by seeking out new collaborations, renewing partnerships and eliminating inefficient programs. Some are working through agencies like the United Way to streamline their efforts to avoid a duplication of services and to better meet the overall needs of the community. Nearly all are finding themselves asking their donor bases to dig a little deeper to help overcome the budget shortfalls being created by the increased demand for services.

“We’re still helping the same amount of people,” West said, of the Salvation Army’s efforts. “But we’re turning more people away. We’re budgeted for a certain amount and our funding hasn’t increased, so we’re limited in the number of people we can help.”

Even when the agency manages to free up monies in a specific category, West said it is used up almost as quickly as it becomes available.

“We need more funding, With more funding, we can help more people. We’re helping the people we can, yet the line is growing and the list of needs is so much longer. We’re just absolutely stretched to our limit,” he said.

Other agencies are also feeling the pinch.

Friends in Need, which provides health and dental care for the working uninsured in Sullivan and Hawkins counties in Tennessee and Scott County in Virginia, has seen a 16 percent increase in the number of patient visits in 2009 over 2008 while average patient payments have fallen.

“Our average patient payment [which is a pre-determined percentage based on a sliding fee scale] has decreased by 43 percent per visit. This means that most of our patients are falling into our lower fee percentage categories. This could be due to one member of the household losing a job or obtaining another job at a lower wage,” said executive director Mark Smelser. “To date, this has decreased our total clinic service income by 22 percent. So, we’re seeing more patients but collecting less off of each patient. Meanwhile, expenses continue to rise.”

While job losses no doubt lead to an increased demand for services, what seems to be more common this year are families and individuals who simply can’t make ends meet due to changes in their employment situation. Fewer available hours, frozen or slashed salaries, reduced benefits and rising health-care costs are all taking their toll.

“For a lot of the people we’re seeing, it’s not that they’ve lost their job, but they’re just not making the money that they were. And nothing else has declined, except for their income or their salaries. Rent didn’t get any cheaper. Utilities didn’t get any cheaper. People are on a very fixed income, and they’re needing help,” West said.

The Salvation Army has spent the last week processing applications for the 2009 Angel Tree program — a program that served 1,700 families a year ago.

“We hope the donor base is still there for that. We hope those who were able to help are still able to help,” West said, “but that, too, remains to be seen.”

In an attempt to identify potential shortfalls early, the Salvation Army is encouraging donors to select angels sooner rather than later this year and will kick off its holiday campaigns even earlier than usual. The first Angel Trees will go up Nov. 14, and the kettle campaign will begin on Nov. 19 at approximately 25 locations across the region. “Last year, we did about $118,000. We’re hoping to increase that to $150,000 to $200,000 this year. That would go a long way toward helping to meet some of these needs,” West said.

Local organizations, clubs and church groups interested in making a difference for the Salvation Army this year will find dozens of ways to help out. In the feeding program, groups can volunteer to prepare and/or serve meals, collect non-perishable food items for the program or make monetary donations to support the program. In the shelter program, there is always a need for personal care products, gift cards and other items to help get families and individuals back on their feet. In the holiday programs, groups can adopt a kettle location to save the agency the cost of having to pay to staff the site or volunteer to man the angel tree booth on various dates.

Though it provides a free medical clinic in Church Hill, county-wide Christmas programs for children, Meals on Wheels in Rogersville, and home repairs for local residents, Of One Accord is asking donors to focus their attention this fall and winter on its emergency feeding programs in Church Hill, Rogersville and Sneedville.

Schools, civic groups, churches and agencies willing to host food drives for Of One Accord are encouraged to do so this month to help stock the shelves for the expected rise in demand generally seen during the holidays and winter months.

“We look at food as the primary thing. We’re going to do 800 Thanksgiving boxes in Hancock County and 100 in Hawkins County, then turn around and do 750 Christmas food boxes in Hawkins County. Somebody else takes care of that in Hancock County,” Livesay said.

“Support is down slightly, but we feel like people are stretching to give that support and we’re thankful for that.”

Friends in Need, like the other two agencies and others throughout the region, welcomes support through monetary donations. However, the greatest need it faces currently is its need for more volunteer dentists and physicians.

“We have the physical facility capability to see more [patients], but not the manpower,” Smelser said. “We also need more representation from our surrounding counties [Hawkins and Scott] in volunteer capacities on our committees.”

As Make a Difference Day approaches, agencies like these throughout the community stand ready to help groups and individuals do just that — to make a difference in the lives of those in need. There’s no shortage of ways to contribute — be it time, money or gifts in kind — and no time like the present to do what one can.

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