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Wichita-area charities have many to help, and need help too

Before last week, Terry Olguin had never stood in line at the Bread of Life food pantry. But the 53-year-old grandmother lost her bartending job a few months ago, so she and her husband, who also is unemployed, "started hitting some of the food banks," she said. Last week she waited hours in the cold for a turkey and supplies for Thanksgiving dinner.

"I have some prospects" on jobs, Olguin said. "But right now it's hard. We're just looking for a little help wherever we can."

Leaders of local nonprofits say a recession that began well before last year's holiday season has stretched into this one and likely will continue for several more months. That means the demand on relief agencies is up, contributions are down, budgets are tight and everyone's anxious.

"What I worry about is, we've been in this now for more than a year, and giving fatigue can set in," said Pat Hanrahan, president of United Way of the Plains.

"I think the outlook, unfortunately, is that we're in for a tough 2010.... But we've got to keep going because there's a lot of extra need out there."

A recent United Way survey of area nonprofit organizations showed that 75 percent saw an increased demand for services over the past six months.

But nearly two-thirds reported decreases in revenue when compared with the same period in 2008. About 40 percent said revenue — including individual donations, grants and government funding — had fallen more than 10 percent.

United Way of the Plains' annual fundraising campaign, a barometer for charitable giving in and around Wichita, fell short of its goal again this year. The $15.8 million in pledges also was less than the $16.4 million raised last year.

Although leaders and volunteers tried to stay positive, many said the numbers portend another bleak year.

"Nothing's any better," said Melissa Walker, an associate professor at Wichita State University's Hugo Wall School of Urban and Public Affairs who studies nonprofits.

"All across the country this is happening," she said. "People don't have the resources to be able to make charitable contributions the way that they did two or three years ago."

'Stretching a little bit'

Even so, people continue to give, often at levels that amaze and inspire nonprofit leaders.

United Methodist Open Door, which provides basic services to those in need, collected a record number of turkeys and cash donations during its annual turkey drive Friday.

Jacquie Vugrinec, 17, and other members of the North High School Student Leadership group raised more than $1,500, which paid for 295 turkeys.

"People would say, 'I really don't have any extra money,' but then they'd dig out whatever spare change they had to help out someone else," said Vugrinec, who helped deliver donations to the district's offices Friday.

"There's always someone worse off than you, so you just do whatever you can."

Deann Smith, executive director of United Methodist Open Door, said she was pleased but not surprised by the outpouring. The group collected more than 3,800 turkeys and about $22,000 in cash.

"As long as you make it fun and convenient for people to give, they're going to give," she said. "People know that it's hard times this year, and they're stretching a little bit themselves."

One man who delivered three turkeys, stuffing and other groceries to the food drive told officials he lost his job last week.

"But we're OK," he told Smith, the director. "I've got support from my family if times get hard, but others don't."

Do what you can

According to research by Independent Sector, an advocacy group representing the interests of nonprofits, about 70 percent of American households make some type of contribution each year to churches, schools or nonprofit organizations.

In 2008, charitable giving totaled $307.65 billion — a 2 percent drop from 2007.

The majority of contributions — almost 82 percent — come from individuals, with the remainder coming from foundations and corporations.

"Nonprofits for the most part count on lots of relatively small gifts from ordinary people," said Walker, the WSU professor.

"So when individuals pull back and tighten their belts and their budgets, nonprofits usually follow."

Episcopal Social Services, Wichita's oldest hot-meal program for people in need, has experienced a 30 percent increase in patrons over the past year, said Sandra Lyon, the group's CEO. A recent survey showed that almost half the patrons are homeless.

"Like most nonprofits, we need to bring in a lot of money in November and December just to break even," Lyon said. "We're always hopeful, but this year just seems to be more of an unknown."

Walker, the WSU professor, said many nonprofits are stressing that financial contributions aren't the only way to give. Organizations need volunteers as well.

"Even though it's really hard right now — everyone is working extra hard, and they're working long hours — the main message is to pick something and get involved at whatever level you can," Walker said.

Hanrahan, United Way's president, said he hopes the holidays inspire a renewed sense of giving during a long period of economic turmoil.

"People have rallied,'' he said. "Maybe they've done their part for United Way or some other cause and feel good about that, and they should.

"It's hard to get people to rally over and over and over, but that's what's needed right now.... I'm fully expecting people to hear the message and step forward because that's what happens here. They come together."

That's what happened at the Bread of Life food giveaway last week. When volunteers from a church started bagging turnips donated by a local farmer, Olguin, the unemployed grandmother, left her place in the food pantry line to help out.

She spent the next half-hour sorting turnips and sweet potatoes into bags and stacking them in a box, chatting casually with other volunteers.

Then she quietly got back in line to register at the pantry and collect her food.

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