Need increases, but holiday giving lags


This is a giving time of year.

Cub Scout Pack 7 Buttonwoods made care packages for the troops in Afghanistan and mailed them in time to get there by Christmas; the Gorton Junior High Student Council held a competition between homerooms and collected nearly a ton of food that went to the Westbay Community Action (WCA) Marketplace; and Don Rodrigues and his Karate Academy held their annual holiday tournament with an entrance fee of a gift to go to the Toys for Tots program run by the Marine Corps.

But, as generous as people are, many of those who work to connect donations with people who need them are reporting a decrease in the level of giving and an increase in demand.

By this time last year, the Neighbors Helping Neighbors program run by the city and promoted by the Warwick Beacon had collected $15,000 in donations. A little more than half that amount had been received as of yesterday including $2,400 in mostly single dollar bills collected from a box outside the Gristmill Road home of Frank Picozzi.

“Every night there used to be at least one twenty,” says Picozzi. Not this year.

“People are giving but just not as much,” Picozzi said.

Yet Picozzi’s 45-minute computerized Christmas light show put to music that people can watch it from their cars is attracting more spectators than ever. There’s no charge for the show, but people are urged to make contributions to Neighbors Helping Neighbors. Last year donations totaled $4,200.

Picozzi would be happy if this year’s collections come anywhere near that.

Rodrigues said he was “bummed out” when fewer than usual number of students registered for the 12th annual tournament for Toys for Tots. While fewer toys were collected during the tournament, families still came through and when Rodrigues counted them all up there were more than 200.

Bob Ventrini, who conducted the 18th annual Toys for Tots telethon at the Warwick Mall on Dec. 6 related a similar experience. Donations were slow to start with, and he feared the economy had put a serious dent in collections.

“But then they just kept coming and coming,” he said yesterday.

That not what Roberta Steinle, of the City Department of Human Services has seen with the Neighbors Helping Neighbors program.

“They’re coming in very slowly,” she said last week.

A big boost of more than $1,300 came in over the weekend from the boot collections by Warwick Firefighters, but overall donations are running behind those of last year.

As the program works ahead by a year, using contributions made last year and over the summer to meet needs, $25,000 in $20 Stop & Shop vouchers has been already distributed to 950 families, an increase of 46 from last year. Depending on size, one family may get more than a single voucher.

“We’re seeing people who used to wish for toys and games, telling us they need food,” said Steinle.

Working with Westbay Community Action, Steinle qualifies requests for assistance based on income. They eliminate duplication by coordinating the giving from other agencies and groups. This is done at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“We have more baskets at Thanksgiving,” says Steinle.

Nonetheless, the donation of baskets for Christmas fills a significant portion of the overall effort. On Saturday the Rotary Club of Warwick assembled 100 baskets that recipients picked up from Westbay Marketplace. Another 74 baskets were assembled and donated by St. Kevin, St. Peter and St. Mark Churches.

Fortunately, there hasn’t been a drop in the donation of baskets.

Westbay executive director Jeanne Gattegno sees “a change.” Like Steinle, she has seen a shift away from requests for toys to a focus on food and heating assistance. She worries about the reduction in federal funding for heating grants that many low income people depend on. Warmer than usual weather has thus far masked what Gattengo fears could be a serious problem.

Westbay also coordinates the Christmas adopt a family program, matching 170 families with companies and groups that take on filling the wish list of a family. One of the program’s largest contributors is Kent Hospital that annually adopts 40 families. The hospital remains a stalwart, but some other regular contributors dropped out this year. As filling a family wish list usually runs about $600, finding companies or individuals to fill those gaps can be difficult. At last Thursday’s Central Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce board meeting, the hat was passed to adopt one family and a handful of board members opened their checkbooks to adopt two more.

There was a time when program donors went over the top buying more than what was on the list.

“We suggest they don’t go out and buy big items like televisions,” says Gattegno. That doesn’t appear to be happening, although the circumstances of those being helped are so desperate there is an urge to do something extra.

“It’s heart breaking,” Gattegno says of people who have lost their jobs, can’t make mortgage payments and find they can’t even afford necessities.

WCA has been strapped by the economy, too. As the result of federal cuts, the agency has had to reduce staff from about 80 to 60. They haven’t been alone. The Post Office has likewise made staff reductions, requiring carriers to expand their routes and doing away with its annual community food collection at this time of year.

“They don’t have the manpower,” Gattegno said.

“We make sure whatever resources we have go as far as possible,” Gattegno said. Her biggest fear is not being able to meet the demand for heating assistance because of government cuts and rising fuel costs. With the date to register for the program rapidly approaching, Gattegno said the agency is processing about 40 new applications daily and “the cold weather hasn’t even hit yet.”

Patti St. Amant, Human Services director of family support, finds a commonality between those in need.

“I’m seeing your neighbors,” she says. “I’m hearing how they got laid off and how they are losing their 99 weeks of unemployment.”

“I wish there was a better way,” she said of the unemployment program that, in many cases, pays more than available minimum wage jobs. St. Amant reasons these people would have a better shot of securing better jobs if they were employed.

“Once you have a job it’s easier to get another,” she said.

She doesn’t see an incentive for people to give up unemployment as long as they would lose revenue with a job paying less. Yet they are trapped between utility bills, the mortgage payment or rent, the cost of food and paying for a car…“They have just hit the wall.”

Nonetheless, she doesn’t see the urge to help others lessening even though the means to do it are not always there.

“We are going to take care of each other because that’s what we are,” she said.


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