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For Whom The Bell Tolls

For charities in the recession, demand is up and donations are down

Paule Pachter, the executive director of Long Island Cares, who has also seen a 15-percent drop in food donations to the Harry Chapin Food Bank, credits government aid with helping the group feed LI’s hungry.

Though many nonprofit organizations have had to cut costs and make sacrifices, Pachter explains that retreating is not an option. “The economy and unemployment have simply devastated so many people and I think it’s pronounced on Long Island because it’s such an expensive place to live,” he says. “We can’t afford to cut back. As a result of the recession people have no idea where their next paycheck, or their next meal, is coming from.”

To the contrary, Pachter and his counterparts are trying to grow the organization’s reach. “We’re trying to expand Long Island Cares to keep delivering food to people in need,” he says. “They’re not asking for much, they’re very calculated when they come to us. They’re asking for staples—milk, bread, cereal, eggs, potatoes.”


Like Island Harvest and the Harry Chapin Food Bank, The Interfaith Nutrition Network (INN) distributes food to hundreds of soup kitchens and pantries islandwide. INN runs three shelters, as well—two for families and one for single men—that are also seeing longer lines as of late.

“Even though donations are down, they’re donating still,” says Cynthia Sucich, spokeswoman for INN, who’s out of breath from helping hand out 5,000 turkeys in five hours. “People don’t realize it; it’s right in their own backyard.”

But for all the buzz this time of year, these nonprofits are bracing themselves for next year.

“Hunger is 365 days a year,” says Pachter. “We’re just as concerned in July about people who don’t have enough food as we are in November.”

Helping Hands

Nonprofit organizations devoted to the arts or health often struggle the most because they rely almost completely on donations. The arts are always the first on the chopping block.

The Long Island Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport, home to some of the region’s heritage keepers, was almost a victim of the recession this year. Carol Ghiorsi-Hart, the executive director of the Vanderbilt Museum, says that last year the museum lost a considerable amount of money that had been invested in the stock market. Suffolk County gave the museum more than $800,000, the minimum amount of money that the museum needs to operate for one year, with more expected in 2010.

Still, the museum has had to cut back its winter hours to just Tuesdays and weekends, and had to let go four full-time employees. Were they to go under, children could lose valuable lessons in history, she explains.

“We have hundreds of schoolchildren coming to visit this museum every year,” says Ghiorsi-Hart. “They love our planetarium, the mummy exhibit, and really everything about the museum.”

Some arts nonprofits are not as worried. Traci Mitchell, director of marketing for Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, says that there has been a slight drop in the number of people going to the theater, but not enough to cause any real panic. She brushed off state funding cuts as a minor setback.

“It hurts to get cuts [in funding] but it won’t blow us down,” Mitchell says. “We’ll keep providing quality shows.”

Small, single-issue, community-based nonprofit startups are really hurting. And not just for the arts.

Rebecca Neuhedel has seen the perilous drop in donations firsthand as president of The Luke Foundation. She started the foundation in April 2002 out of her Massapequa Park home not long after her son, Luke, died of hepatoblastoma, a rare liver cancer. The Foundation supports children with cancer through toy drives, the annual Lukefest fundraiser, and organized outings for children with cancer.

“Fewer donations are coming in, and with lower amounts,” says Neuhedel. She says she copes with these losses by reaching out to more corporations for donations and trying to get support from social service agencies and other children’s groups.

Gregory Noone, the program manager for Thursday’s Child, a nonprofit that supports individuals with HIV/AIDS, says he has also received mixed signals from corporate donors. Some are more than willing to donate food to Thursday’s Child, but refuse to donate money for the organization’s administrative needs.

Noone explains that increased client need and cutbacks in state funding have created a “perfect storm” for Thursday’s Child. But he stressed that he will do whatever is necessary to get HIV/AIDS-afflicted people on Long Island the best treatment possible.

“Times are tough but we don’t want it to get to the point where we have to say no to someone who needs our help,” Noone says. “We’ll just be working harder and finding new donors.”

Hope for the Desperate

Despite the bad news within the numbers, there are glimmers of hope for those compassionate souls who spend their days trying to save the skyrocketing number of those who find themselves strapped—even for those helping hands who have lost it all themselves.

“I’ve been doing this for 29 years—they can’t stop us with a fire,” proclaimed Rev. Diane Dunne as she waited for a donated modular office to arrive at Hope for the Future Ministries in East Farmingdale, where an unknown arsonist set a fire that destroyed their kitchen, food storage warehouse and offices on Nov. 15. The heart-wrenching story has prompted so many donors that the volunteers are having trouble keeping up, and while the majority of their food was lost, they are already on the road to recovery.

Some have found that the rising unemployment rate has freed up a larger pool of volunteers. In many cases the volunteers bring sorely needed skill sets—like bookkeeping—to nonprofits, in others volunteering allows the unemployed to learn new skills and make themselves more marketable.

“All of a sudden people see ‘it could be me’ and they’re responding,” says Fran Karliner, chair of Philanthropy Day and director of community relations for Hi-Hello Child Care Center in Freeport, which is struggling to make ends meet in the wake of state and county government funding cuts. And regardless of the hardships, there are still good vibrations for doing good deeds, she says. “It puts someone who is unemployed in a more positive mindset.”

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