In-depth

Despite holiday spirit, bad economy affecting Chicago charities

English.news.cn   2011-12-23 07:59:59            

by Katherine Harbin

CHICAGO, Dec. 22 (Xinhua) -- It is still the "season of giving, " but tough economic times have put a strain on so many Americans' paychecks this year that holiday donations and charitable contributions have fallen at some Chicago relief organizations.

For many Americans, the holiday season goes in hand with Salvation Army bell ringers, the thousands of volunteers who stand outside stores and street corners collecting charitable donations for the famous relief organization. The donations, which are collected in a signature red kettle, go towards funding local Salvation Army community centers and programs for those who are struggling.

According to Chicago's Salvation Army leadership it is their largest fundraising effort of the year, and with only three days left to go until Christmas donations are currently down 10 percent compared to this time last year.

What's more, the Salvation Army continued that many of its other holiday-oriented programs were suffering even greater setbacks. Chicago's Midwest Corps Community Center on the West Side reported that they were still over 700 gifts short for their Angel Tree program that collects presents for disadvantaged children.

Not even one family had been "adopted" this year in the location's more extensive Adopt-a-Family donation program, where just last year three families had woken up Christmas morning to find all their food, gifts and even outstanding bills completely taken care of by holiday do-gooders.

Salvation Army social worker Stacy Allen told Xinhua that charitable contributions had suffered with the tough American economy, and that this year more and more people were actually coming to the Midwest Corps Community Center not to donate holiday gifts, but to sign up to receive them.

"The need is so much greater this year that some of the people who donated last year are now applicants," Allen told Xinhua in an interview about the drop in recent holiday donations.

According to Allen, the Salvation Army's Chicago Metropolitan Division serves more than 112,000 people during the holiday season, and though many people still want to donate and help others who are struggling, it may just not be within their means anymore to do so.

"I think most people are in a more giving mood towards the holiday season... but just with the economy and where people were able to really give and help out others before, now it's just hard on everybody. So where they were giving and doing, now they' re not - they need to keep it for themselves," Allen explained.

The situation was slightly brighter at the Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD), where Vice President of Communications Bob Dolgan said that although the official data was still being calculated, it appeared as though their One City One Food Drive holiday program had achieved its goal of one million pounds of food donations.

According to GCFD, food donations in Chicago historically spike between Thanksgiving and Christmas, with about 500 different food drives occurring within the six week period.

However, GCFD spokesperson Meaghan Farno said that though the organization greatly appreciated the yearly holiday "phenomenon" where so many people actively donate and give back to the community, she was worried about how the GCFD donation situation would be in January.

Since the American financial crisis and its ensuing economic woes, GCFD has seen a 59 percent increase in people using its network of 650 local food pantries and soup kitchens. Farno said that though GCFD had always been able to meet rising demand before, because of decreasing donations and high food prices, this year's totals were looking grim.

"We're looking at kind of a scary situation that we will not be able to distribute as much food as we did last year, and that' s mostly based on the lack of the shelf stable donations," Farno told Xinhua in an exclusive interview.

"The shelf-stable items just aren't being donated as everyone' s facing kind of tough budgets and tough times... we distributed 69 million pounds of food last year and we're projecting that we' ll only be able to distribute 61 million pounds this year, so it' s a gap of 8 million pounds which is significant."

Forty-seven percent of the GCFD supply comes from individual and corporate donations, and Farno explained that in addition to the individuals increasingly struggling to buy their own groceries, food corporations that had previously donated their mislabeled or surplus items to GCFD are now either selling them to dollar stores for a profit or practicing cautious underproduction.

Coupled with rising food prices of up to 25 percent for some products, the declining donations make for what Farno calls "a perfect storm" of issues for the increasingly needed relief agency.

But despite all the bad news, charitable organizers say they have seen Chicagoans rise to the occasion before, and are still hopeful that their agencies will somehow find ways to meet the challenges and spread holiday cheer into the New Year.

Allen shared that her daughter received assistance from the Salvation Army last Christmas and, after finally finding a good job, it is now she who is signing up to give back and buy presents for those who cannot afford them.

Farno finds encouragement in the 16,000 people who volunteer for GCDF food distribution and soup kitchen work, as well as the sincere thank-you she receives from a hungry person who finally gets to enjoy a good meal.

"It's tough, but our pantries and all of the people that are working to help fight hunger in this community are tremendous and it's always heartening to meet the people who are doing this work, so I think there is hope," she said positively.

Special Report: Global Financial Crisis

Editor: Chen Zhi
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