By Jamison Cocklin
In 1845, the Dutch author Hans Christian Andersen wrote of a little girl roaming cold streets barefoot on the last night of the year, desperately trying to sell matches for her struggling family.
When the girl failed to collect “a farthing of money,” as Andersen wrote, she chose instead to light the matches for warmth — after the last match burned out, the winter chill gripped her, and she died hungry, envisioning simple things such as a Christmas tree and a holiday feast.
“The Little Match Girl,” as the fictional story is called, might be a stretch in evoking the plight of the homeless and impoverished in the 21st century, but if anything, it serves as a reminder of the days before charitable tax deductions and the en masse donations that flow to nonprofits during the holidays.
For all the consumerism that occurs in the two months leading up to the new year, a separate economy flourishes at the same time.
In most instances, throughout November and December, non- profits, shelters, charities and support programs in both the Mahoning Valley and across the U.S. will collect a majority of their operating budgets for the entire year.
“Giving is a seasonal event. We will generate between 50 percent and 60 percent of our annual budget between October and December,” said James Echement, executive director of the Rescue Mission of Mahoning Valley. “January to September is equally as important, but this time of year is absolutely crucial to us.”
As the only emergency shelter in Mahoning County, Echement’s remarks are a strong indicator the mission, like other nonprofits in the area, is a business like anything else.
The shelter relies entirely on private donations, seeking out individuals, schools, businesses and organizations to bankroll its $1.9 million budget for 2013.
But even if it is a business, the shelter’s mission is complex. It employs 35 full-time staff members, along with 30 full-time equivalent volunteers to accomplish its daily role, which includes serving three meals a day to the general public and its in-house residents.
On a given night, Echement said his facility serves between 110 and 120 people, with about 60 percent of the population being single men and another 40 percent being women and children. At the holidays, Echement said he considers the shelter’s role a vital one, as the cold of winter presses individuals indoors, and many families rely on the generosity of others to provide their children with a Christmas.
Earlier last week, the shelter had its “Winter Wonderland” event, which found all of the shelter’s privately donated gifts and clothing arranged in its 20,000-square-foot warehouse on Glenwood Avenue.
In-house residents were given rides to the facility, where they could shop freely from enough gifts for 120 families.
“‘Winter Wonderland’ is not so much about receiving as it is about giving,” said Lynn Wyant, the shelter’s director of development. “It allows residents a chance to give gifts to their families so that they can have stuff to open Christmas morning.”
Homelessness and the need for social services vary widely from city to city. In its 2010 report, the Mahoning County Homeless Continuum of Care counted 1,402 individuals who were without shelter or in less-than-ideal living situations across the county.
In 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there were 636,017 homeless individuals nationwide.
On the other hand, those numbers pale in comparison to the nuanced demands of millions who require help during the holidays and throughout the year.
Local and national charities serve a litany of needs that range from vital services such as feeding the hungry and providing health care, to affording creature comforts such as company for the lonely and gifts at Christmas time.
Catholic Charities USA, one of the largest social-services providers in the country, found that its members and affiliates served more than 10 million people nationwide with such charitable services in 2011.
In the Valley alone, the Catholic Charities Regional Agency served nearly 20,000 people in all three counties last year, said Nancy Voitus, executive director.
Nationwide, CCUSA had more than $4.4 billion to serve its clients in 2011.
Often, though, money is not enough, and the multiplicity of needs in a given community forces all manner of nonprofits to come together in formal networks and informal partnerships.
“We all try and work together so that we’re not duplicating services and wasting money,” Voitus said. “We are trying to stretch our dollars in a partnership that is vitally important to serve clients in the best way possible. We’re working in a system.”
Bob Hannon, president of the United Way of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley, said that system unfolds further and envelopes the broader community to form a model for financing that his organization relies on entirely. This year, the Youngstown United Way is aiming for a fund-raising goal of $2.5 million, 70 percent of which is currently funded. About half of that, Hannon said, will come from “hard-working people.”
United Way approaches area businesses and asks employees to pledge contributions through payroll deductions, quarterly payments or single donations. The remainder of its funding comes through charitable foundations and corporate and individual donors.
The money is allocated among the 34 agencies and 70 programs the Youngstown United Way has partnered with to fund.
“We wouldn’t be able to do the extra holiday projects without regular charitable donations,” said Juanita Paisley, executive director of one such partner, the United Methodist Community Center, on East Boardman Street in downtown Youngstown. “Our budget is tight. You don’t have line items for extra things. When you have people [who] give toward those projects, it gives you an opportunity to service more families with extra holiday offerings.”
The center, which will serve about 350 families this holiday, was able to provide gifts for 400 children this week as the result of largesse from United Methodist Churches in the area. The Angel Tree Project allowed parishioners to take a card from a tree with a child’s name on it and purchase whatever was requested.
In the final week before Christmas, these sorts of efforts continued across the Valley. Some organizations had community members adopt families to provide them with a holiday, while others passed out hams and roasting chickens for Christmas dinner, and several holiday parties were paid for using additional donations.
When asked what some of the younger children had listed at the United Methodist Community Center, Paisley wasn’t surprised at the requests and gave a modest answer.
“Some kids just said they wanted anything — it didn’t matter to them,” she said without pause. “They asked for footballs, dolls or jerseys, but it was interesting because they’re not real expensive things. What they’re asking for is always very reasonable. The population we work with is always appreciative of anything they get.”