The Salvation Army is preparing its offensive on sad and sparse Christmases, but officers worry that many residents who qualify for army programs haven’t signed up and will be left out when December comes.
The charitable organization has spent the week enlisting Central Virginians for its programs that provide holiday food and gifts for families in need of assistance, but they say applications are lagging behind normal. Today is the last day to apply for the holiday assistance.
Last year the army served 473 families and 66 seniors. Applications can be filled out at 1844 Abbey Road at the Rivanna Ridge Shopping Center on Pantops. That is the storefront next to the Giant grocery store.
“I’m afraid a lot of people haven’t gotten the word,” said Salvation Army Maj. Melinda Johnson. “We only had about 148 families and 10 seniors sign up after three days and that’s well behind normal. It’s great if they don’t need the help, but our concern is that they do need it and either they don’t know where to sign up or haven’t heard about it.”
Kim Connolly is director of marketing and communications at the United Way — Thomas Jefferson Area. She said efforts by her organization to get out the word have not been as fruitful.
“We run public service announcements on Monticello Media radio stations to let people know that it’s time to sign up and usually our phone starts ringing as soon as the first announcement hits the air,” she said. “This year we only had 18 calls in the week and that’s a lot less than we normally see.”
Like Johnson, Connolly worries that the lack of response is not due to the lack of need, but the lack of knowledge. It could also be that some families are hoping to avoid asking until the last minute. That, unfortunately, could leave them lacking, she said.
“That’s why we do the outreach: There are a lot of families out there in the past year who have never had to ask for help before and they often hope they can pull it together and provide their own Christmas for the kids by the time December comes by getting a job or more hours or something,” Connolly said. “Our concern is that by the time they realize it isn’t going to happen, it will be past the deadline to ask for help.”
The Salvation Army provides not only holiday meals but runs three programs designed to provide gifts and winter clothing for those who qualify. The programs include the Angel Tree, for infants to 12-year-olds, WAHU Stocking for 13- to 17-year-olds and Silver Bells for those 65 and older.
Most of the holiday support comes from area residents and businesses adopting families and providing food and gifts from wish lists. Other programs are paid for through contributions to the army, which officers say have been struggling to stay at last year’s level while needs and clients have increased.
The army’s traditional fundraising method of setting up collection kettles outside of storefronts earned the charity $130,000 in 2008, but only $89,000 in 2009. Other income has also dropped.
“We’ve seen increases in need and services and a decrease in donations over the year and that’s made providing services difficult,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to keep the doors to programs open without having to make cuts, but it’s been difficult.”
Johnson said the army has applied for more grants, but noted that other agencies facing decreasing donations have also applied.
“The competition for grants has grown. Everybody is hurting for money,” she said.
According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, donations to the nation’s biggest charities dropped 11 percent in 2009, the steepest annual fall in the two decades that the organization has kept records.
The Chronicle reported that most large charities expect to see less than a 2 percent increase over last year’s donations, keeping donation levels essentially even.
At the national level, United Way Worldwide saw a 4.5 percent decrease in donations and the Salvation Army an 8.4 percent drop. The local groups run programs based on local donations.
Connolly said last year’s fundraising by local United Way officials was on par with the previous year. But she said most agencies funded by the local United Way, and the United Way-Thomas Jefferson Area itself, have reported increases in need and demand for services since the economy crashed in 2008 and workforces were reduced in 2009.
“We know the need is there because people are calling us every single day for help with rent or utility bills or medical issues,” she said. “A lot of people don’t know what help is available or how to go about asking for it because they’ve never done it before and many don’t want to rely on the help.”
Johnson said it’s odd to have so few sign up for holiday help when so many have been knocking on the army’s door for assistance throughout the year.
“We know the need is greater this year and that there are families that are in need,” she said. “What scares us is that by the time they realize they need help for the holiday, it’s going to be too late.”