Lancaster New Era (Pennsylvania), July 1, 2008: Charity stays at home

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Lancaster New Era

Published: Jul 01, 2008

10:47 EST


In a sign of the times, Lancaster County residents are holding onto the old clothing they once carted off to the nearest charity and saving garments to make a buck at a yard sale.

One result: At one Goodwill store recently, sorters had to be sent home because there weren’t enough donated items to process.

Local food banks are now being forced to buy canned goods to give away as financially pressed chain supermarkets that have long donated surplus instead sell it to discount grocery stores.

Charitable groups are watching nervously as returns on their endowments shrink.

And expect to see fewer American Red Cross disaster vehicles in summer parades another effect of economic uncertainty.

The downturn in the economy and soaring gas prices are hitting home with local charities and non-profits, from soup kitchens and homeless shelters to churches, historical societies and volunteer fire companies.

In a county known for its charitable giving, flagging donations have begun hampering efforts to aid those in need even as the need for help rises.

At the Water Street Rescue Mission, for example, the free meals served to eligible poor rose by 3,000 for the first five months this year, compared to the same period a year ago. During these same five months, donations to the mission declined by 9 percent.

“It’s come upon us pretty quickly. It’s not because people don’t care. It’s because people need to take care of their families first,” says Renee Valentine, founder of Milagro House, the Lancaster-based effort to help homeless women and children.

Even as Milagro House embarks on a mission to increase services and temporary homes, donations are ebbing dramatically. A Mother’s Day appeal to the community last year drummed up $25,000 in support. This year, the response was $2,500.

Valentine and her staff are hoping for corporate sponsorships to take up the slack, but the initial response has not been encouraging.

“People are saying, ‘I have to lay off half my work force. That doesn’t give us much money to give to charity.’ How can you argue with that?

“I believe people are strapped. You cannot even blame anyone because I notice my own spending habits have changed,” Valentine added.

Even charitable giants such as United Way of Lancaster County and the American Cancer Society’s Lancaster Relay for Life are feeling the effects of tightening belts.

After raising more than $1 million each of the last two years, the 15th Lancaster Relay for Life in June slipped to $944,574. Officials partly blamed “the stresses of the economy.”

United Way of Lancaster County saw pledges increase by 1 percent in 2007, but organizers are worried about the economic downturn. For this year’s campaign, they’re putting up incentives such as gas cards, a motorcycle trip and a new Saturn car to keep the pledges flowing.

Helping underwrite 36 local agencies will be more important than ever, says Susan Eckert, local United Way president. For example, she notes that local phone calls requesting help from the agency’s LINC hotline of available services is on a pace for a 25-percent increase this year.

“What we see is a real increase in the demand for services. There are a group of people for whom this downturn is the difference of having food and not having food,” says Eckert.

The Central Pennsylvania Food Bank is reeling from grocers selling surplus food to discount grocers and from spiraling gas prices that make it more costly to pick up goods and deliver them to shelters.

Yet requests for help have risen by about 15 percent, reports Melissa Etshied, director of communications for the organization that helps feed about 162,000 people a year, including some in Lancaster County.

“A lot of them are what we call the working poor,” she says. “They have jobs and just can’t make ends meet.”

At the American Red Cross of the Susquehanna Valley’s Lancaster office, which is funded solely by contributions, there have been 410 fewer donors this year, a 10 percent drop.

To save money, the agency may decline invitations to trot out relief vehicles at community parades.

The Crispus Attucks Community Center in Lancaster, which has experienced a “small pinch in giving,” is finding more parents this year aren’t even able to pay the $40 reduced fee for their kids to attend a popular eight-week summer science camp.

“We’ll take more out of the budget to help parents enroll because the more children we keep off the streets, the safer they are and it provides families with good programming not just babysitting,” says Cheryl Holland-Jones, executive director.

The Rev. Michael Wilson, pastor at Chestnut Level Presbyterian Church, says giving in his congregation has held its own so far, but what he has noticed is more new couples seeking support and direction on financial matters.

It’s not just direct giving that has been affected by the downturn. At the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County, donations are remaining steady, but two of the group’s three endowments have lost their appreciation.

Goodwill Industries of Southeastern Pennsylvania depends on retail sales of donated clothing and household items to generate $24 million a year from 34 stores in 22 counties. Lancaster County has the most with nine.

The revenue funds training programs for the disabled and disadvantaged and the stores provide on-the-job training.

“We can’t afford a 5 percent decrease,” says Jennifer Ross, Goodwill’s senior director of marketing and public relations in Harrisburg.

But a recent survey shows both store sales and donated items dropping.

“People are looking at everything. They’re looking at their clothing and things, and saying, ‘I can still use this,’ ” Ross says.

Another obstacle facing Goodwill’s niche: Chain stores such as Wal-Mart, Kohl’s and Target have dropped their prices to the point that they are now competing with Goodwill prices, according to Ross.

“We’re now in competition with some big names.”

Staff writer Ad Crable can be reached at or 481-6029.

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