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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Spokane

Charities struggle with growing needs, plunging donations Heidi Mott, of Meals on Wheels, delivers seven days worth of food to northwest Spokane resident Jared Coen on Wednesday. The organization depends on donations to run. (Christopher Anderson) Heidi Mott, of Meals on Wheels, delivers seven days worth of food to northwest Spokane resident Jared Coen on Wednesday. The organization depends on donations to run. (Christopher Anderson)

On his recent rounds delivering food to homebound elderly and disabled people, a Meals on Wheels volunteer noticed that one of the recipients didn’t look well. The driver sees the man every week, so he knew something wasn’t right.

The gentleman insisted he was fine, so the volunteer continued on his route, delivering meals to some of the 215 to 250 people who receive them in Spokane each day.

After his last drop-off, the driver stopped back at the man’s house to make sure everything was OK.

It wasn’t. The meal recipient had had a heart attack, so the driver rushed him to the hospital.

“We’re important for a multitude of reasons,” said Mollie Dalpae, executive director of Mid-City Concerns Senior Center and Meals on Wheels of Spokane. “That social aspect, you bet, but it’s also that check-in to make sure everyone’s OK.”

Meals on Wheels is one of dozens of organizations that help the needy in Spokane – and is one of dozens that depend on donations to operate.

The message from many charities this year is the same: The need is great and contributions are down.

“Some people who used to be our donors are now calling and asking for help because they can’t pay their Avista bill,” said Rob McCann, Catholic Charities executive director.

The situation is no surprise given the weak economy. Forecasters here recently predicted minimal growth in jobs and income for 2010, so the situation could get worse or improve only slightly in the next year.

Although the national economy tanked in fall 2008, some nonprofit leaders say it wasn’t until recently that they saw a spike in demand. Meals on Wheels delivered 6,370 meals in October, Dalpae said. “That was 200 more than September, and September was 500 more than August.”

Meanwhile, donations are down 39 percent compared with last year.

“We’re hoping, now that we’re in the Christmas season, people will recognize that (when) you fight in World War II and you work hard your whole life, you deserve to be served a meal a day,” Dalpae said.

Meals on Wheels isn’t the only program struggling to meet the demand.

“It’s definitely not an easy time to be a nonprofit,” said Megan Snow, director of communications for the American Red Cross Inland Northwest Chapter.

Snow said her organization is seeing fewer major gifts, such as bequests after someone dies. The budget is OK for now, she said, but as the busy season approaches – when power outages and fires force families into emergency housing and the organization responds to a crisis every 48 hours – the Red Cross could feel the strain.

McCann said Catholic Charities, which operates on a $12 million annual budget, is facing a $500,000 deficit.

Meanwhile, some of Catholic Charities’ low-income apartments have waiting lists 100 people long, and its shelters are turning away up to 40 homeless people each night.

Catholic Charities holds an annual Christmas Collection, during which it asks churchgoers to donate money to fund the organization’s 15 programs.

Donors often confuse the Christmas Collection with the Christmas Bureau, which is run by Catholic Charities, Volunteers of America and The Spokesman-Review and is a 10-day event that gives needy families gifts and food vouchers. Catholic Charities’ other programs operate year-round.

Catholic Charities is noticing that its bread-and-butter donors are no longer able to contribute.

“A lot of the $10- or $20-per-month donors have stayed, and our $500-per-month donors have stayed, but it’s the $150-per-month donors that have disappeared,” McCann said.

Last year’s collection was the lowest ever, forcing Catholic Charities to lay off 25 workers. If this year doesn’t go well, “we’re at risk of closing programs,” he said.

At Volunteers of America, just as many people are donating as did in the past, but they’re only able to give half as much as they did before, Executive Director Marilee Roloff said.

“That tells me it’s the economy, stupid,” she said.

VOA took another blow when the roof of its thrift shop collapsed under last winter’s heavy snow. “That loss of revenue coupled with decreased private giving was hard to manage,” Roloff said.

One bright spot for the organization is that private donations from its recent Hope House Fashion Show were up over 2008’s figures.

“Maybe it’s picking up,” Roloff said. “Maybe we’re turning the corner.”

United Way also is reporting an upswing in contributions to its annual campaign. Businesses so far are giving almost 10 percent more than they did in 2008.

“We’re optimistic that we’ll finish further ahead than the year before … but there’s still a long way to go toward our overall goal,” President and CEO Tim Henkel said.

Henkel credits the residents of the Spokane area – where the average household income of $46,308 is well below the state average of $55,628 – for generously giving as much as they can.

“And maybe that’s because people here recognize (the need) a bit more closely” than residents of more affluent cities do, he said. “That demonstrates the quality of the community. We do care for one another.”

Megan Cooley can be reached at (509) 459-5489 or
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