Cheryl Wright was worried about what to do with her son as the end of the 2008 school year approached.
In April 2008, her son’s best friend, Keenen Brooks, died from a cancerous brain tumor. After Keenen’s death, the then-14-year-old August Swanson was depressed — not wanting to go to school or be around his other friends.
“It was extremely hard for him and all of us,” Wright said.
A single mom with a full-time job, Wright was anxious about what August would do once classes stopped.
A few weeks into summer break, a friend called and encouraged him to come to the Boys and Girls Club. With the program, he swam, roller skated, played games and interacted with peers and counselors.
“That was the first time I really saw my son come back to life and happiness come back to him,” Wright said.
It’s that experience that has prompted Wright — an assistant in the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office — to encourage fellow Douglas County employees to give money to the United Way campaign.
During a time of economic hardship, the Boys and Girls Club, like many other agencies funded through United Way, has seen its need for services increase.
Fifty students are on the after-school program’s waiting list, United Way campaign Chairman Scot Buxton said. Boys and Girls Club Executive Director Janet Murphy said that by the end of the school year, the club anticipates adding 300 more students.
This month, selected businesses began asking for employee donations for the United Way’s fundraising campaign. The nonprofit’s overall fundraising goal won’t be announced until the official campaign kickoff in September.
Despite the bad economy, Buxton said this year’s goal will be higher than the $1.72 million raised last year. It’s a decision that has been questioned by some community members.
“(People say) well, the economy is struggling and people are in hard times. And you surely aren’t going to increase your goal,” Buxton said. “The answer is yes we are going to increase our goal. Because the flip side of the coin ... is people are in far greater need than they ever have been.
More with less
From health care services to programs helping children, the 26 agencies under the United Way umbrella have all helped more people this year due to the economy.
Among them is Douglas County Court Appointed Special Advocates. The strain of losing a job and financial hardships can often trigger more child abuse and neglect cases, Executive Director Diana Frederick said.
So far this year, the nonprofit has served 58 children who are in the court system because of abuse or neglect. With children on a waiting list and several new cases arriving last week, the agency could soon exceed the 66 children it served in 2008.
The Ballard Center has seen a 48 percent increase in its programs, President and CEO Dianne Ensminger said. The center is feeding more than 500 people a month. At the same time, food and monetary donations aren’t as strong as they normally are.
“We had to go and buy food. We have never had to do that and last week we just had to,” Ensminger said.
One day this summer, the center had a mobile food pantry with fresh produce and it attracted about 400 people.
Erika Dvorske, president and CEO of the United Way of Douglas County, can rattle off several more agencies that have seen a boost in clients. The Douglas County Dental Clinic had significant increases for patients needing emergency dental care and those who couldn’t pay anything. A lost grant contributed to a nine-week wait for patients wanting to use the Health Care Access Clinic, Dvorske said.
While the need is greater, fundraising has proved challenging.
At the Ballard Center, Ensminger worried about lining up corporate sponsors for a golf tournament. Sponsorship of the Red Dog Run for the Boys and Girls Club wasn’t as high as in years past.
At CASA, the organization is in the midst of looking for a new home, saw a cut in state funding and didn’t raise as much money as in previous years during its annual fundraiser. To help counteract those setbacks, Frederick said CASA is reaching out to attract new donors.
“We have faith we will come through this challenging time,” she said. “No doubt, the combination of an increase in need and decrease in resources is a difficult combination.”
CASA isn’t the only local nonprofit that has made attempts to adapt to the poor economy.
While still offering one-on-one services, Trinity In-Home Care is looking to bring together clients with disabilities for group care. It’s one way to deal with the agency’s increased patient load.
“It’s mutually beneficial for clients and the budget,” Executive Director Kelly Evans said.
Staff at the Ballard Center are mastering the power of social media through Facebook and blogs.
On Sept. 26, GaDuGi SafeCenter is hosting a car show and music festival at Broken Arrow Park. It’s the first major fundraiser for the nonprofit that works with sexual assault victims.
“If we could bring in $3,000 I would be really pleased,” Executive Director Sarah Jane Russell said.
It’s within this climate of heavily used social services that the community will be asked to donate.
At Lawrence Memorial Hospital, the United Way campaign has adopted the phrase “Pay it Forward.” The logo is in appreciation for the lengths the community went to raise money for the hospital’s construction campaign, LMH recruitment manager Lisa Kutait said.
Willis HRH, an insurance company in downtown Lawrence, typically has a 100 percent participation rate from its employees in the United Way. In efforts to keep participation high and donations up, this year the company has cut back on requests from individual nonprofits looking for donations, said the company’s campaign chairwoman Sara Dawson. Instead, it’s focusing on the United Way.
“Our employees here are overwhelmingly generous. They always have been and they will contribute if you ask,” she said. “To reduce some of the burden, we cut back on what we were doing.”
At Douglas County Bank, employees are paying to wear jeans to work, holding garage and bake sales, and giving customers a chance to purchase paper cutouts to raise money for United Way. The garage sale, especially the kids clothing, was a hit. Some of the other activities haven’t been as successful.
“People are kind of watching their pennies and where they are putting their money,” said Wendi Morris, who is the campaign coordinator for Douglas County Bank.
This week, Douglas County government will have its hot dog day for employees. Proceeds from sales will go to the United Way. Cheryl Wright is organizing the donation efforts of the 465 employees who are with Douglas County government, Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department and the Douglas County Extension Office.
While the hot dog fundraiser is always a success, Wright finds one of the more effective methods of encouraging donations is educating her co-workers about all the work the United Way agencies do.
“When you start talking about money, everyone starts talking about how hard everybody has it. But as soon as they finish talking about that, the next thing they start talking about is they know how great the need is out there. And, then everybody realizes how fortunate they are. And that makes them want to give,” she said.