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Helping Hand fears it will run out of money; staggering economy drains those who help

A group that has helped South Enders in need for more than a quarter century has found itself in a financial pinch.

Helping Hand, a faith-based organization that gives grants for housing and energy bills to people who are in a financial crunch, fears that it may run out of money soon.

The organization’s funds, as of early September, are nearly depleted, said Dick Hall, a Helping Hand caseworker and the nonprofits’ vice president.

“We had more pressure than normal,” Hall said. “There were a lot more people in July and August. In the summer, that’s unusual.”

From January through August of 2008 Helping Hand has distributed $33,713 in assistance.

During the same period in 2007, Helping Hand distributed $23,130 to those in need.

The number of individuals seeking assistance this July has been unprecedented, Hall said.

He said the economy is to blame.

The financial difficulties facing many South Whidbey residents appear to be a combination of many factors, including high rents, lack of affordable housing, low wages paid in service and tourist-related businesses such as restaurants, shops and landscaping, and few family-wage jobs. The increase in gas prices is another contributing factor. Compounding problems this year was the temporary shutdown of Nichols Brothers Boat Builders, Hall explained.

Signs that the economy was taking a toll on the finances of the nonprofit emerged earlier this year.

Reserve funds dropped below $3,000 in March, Hall said. The organization had to adjust.

“We had to make some limitations on how to distribute the money,” he said.

The rule-of-thumb at Helping Hand is that people can get $400 per person per calendar year. Now, the group considers limiting it $200 per person, a prospect that frightens Hall.

“You maybe give them $200 to help with rent. The $200 keeps them in the house, but they come back because they are facing eviction a month later,” Hall said.

Helping Hand, a coalition of nine South Whidbey churches, has been in existence for 26 years. Primarily, Helping Hand provides one-time assistance with rent and energy bills although other aid is also available. The average grant was $129.

Because Helping Hand is a faith-based organization, it is not eligible for federal funding and relies on grants and local donations, Hall said.

The group’s revenue sources include donations from member churches, other South Whidbey faith groups, community organizations, foundation and church grants and individual donors. The bulk of the revenue comes from the member churches.

Helping Hand spends 93 percent of its funds to assist people in need, Hall said.

Last year, Helping Hand distributed $44,000 in grants to 1,050 individuals and family units.

In 2006, Helping Hand served 701 individuals and families.

“Helping Hand has experienced a yearly increase in the number of people served, but this year the percent of increase has been much greater than previous years,” Hall said.

“The numbers are such that Helping Hand funds as of Aug. 5 are nearly depleted. Without increased donations, Helping Hand may need to suspend financial grants for the first time in its 26 years of operation,” he said.

If that happens, Helping Hand will keep its doors open and continue to make referrals and counsel those in need until funds are once more available for distribution, he said.

Helping Hand, like many nonprofits, finds that while the need for assistance has increased, donations have decreased, Hall said.

Gail LaVasser of the Family Resource Center said this year’s Back To School Project showed that there are more families than ever in need on South Whidbey.

“What was different was the large number of new people,” she said.

In addition, the needs of some families appeared much more pressing.

“The needs are just bigger than in the past,” LaVasser said. “Last week alone,

I spoke with three different people facing foreclosure. The problems are larger than what we are used to.”

At the same time, the Family Resource Center’s statistics won’t reflect that increased need because the incoming donations don’t match the need.

The center is only able to serve about the same amount of people it helped last year, because they can only give away as much as they have collected for the project, she said.

The experience at Good Cheer, South Whidbey’s food bank, is slightly different, but nonetheless troubling.

Kathy McLaughlin, executive director of Good Cheer said Good Cheer is fortunate to have the income source from its thrift stores and is very well supported by the community.

“Donations are up, but not at the rate my fuel and food costs are up,” McLaughlin said.

Good Cheer’s retail sales are up 13.5 percent over last year; the food bank program monetary donations are up 43.7 percent.

However, food purchases for the food bank are up 46.9 percent and transportation cost is up 71 percent, she said.

And the number of people in need has doubled since last year.

“In August of 2007 we served 306 families, in August of 2008 we served 611 families — a 50 percent increase,” McLaughlin said.

She hears frequently from clients who tell her that while the help with groceries has prevented hunger, families can’t afford to pay for rent, water or electricity.

“We see so many more people who tell us they have to use their dollars for other things,” she said. “We’ve always seen the working poor, but we see more and more today.”

Last month, the food bank served 72 families on one particularly busy day.

“That’s an all-time high,” she said.

“They share with us that their electricity will be shut off or they may lose their home,” McLaughlin said.

It’s problematic to refer clients to other aid organizations, knowing that these groups face similar challenges or are already out of money.

“Usually we would refer them to Helping Hand, but they are low on funds. Then to the Opportunity Council. But people told us last month that there was a recording that the Opportunity Council had distributed all its funds for August and the recording told people to call back in September.”

“There is no place left to refer people to,” McLaughlin added.

National indices such as the stock market, foreclosure rates and unemployment rates, plus the cost of living are referenced by economists as evidence that the nation could be in a recession.

A less academic barometer of the health of the South Whidbey economy is the activity experienced by nonprofit organizations dedicated to assisting South Whidbey residents.

Besides Helping Hand, Good Cheer and the Family Resource Center, the list of these organizations include Friends of Friends, which helps with medical needs; the Pregnancy Aid Clinic and the Opportunity Council, which helps with housing, Hall said.

That the threat to these elements of South Whidbey’s social safety net is real is supported by the reality observed by caseworkers.

The number of individuals seeking assistance this summer has been unprecedented and summer is normally a good economic time for South Whidbey, said the leaders of the nonprofits.

Observing the hardship of some families is heartbreaking, and with the funding difficulties hanging over the Helping Hand’s head, Hall said, sometimes all that the faith-based organization can do is pray with those in need.

Donations to Helping Hand of South Whidbey may be mailed to Helping Hand, PO Box 661, Langley, WA 98260 or hand-delivered to the Helping Hand office at the House of Hope,

816 Camano Ave., across from the fairgrounds in Langley.

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