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Irene giving takes toll on United Way

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Posted on December 8, 2011 |
By John Flowers



MIDDLEBURY — Tropical Storm Irene blew out of Vermont more than three months ago, but its after-effects continue to be seen not only in the form of scarred asphalt and damaged roads, but on the ledgers of human service agencies trying to raise money to put people back on their feet.

United Way of Addison County (UWAC) is one of several United Way branches statewide reporting slower-than-usual progress in their annual fund drives for money to support local nonprofits serving people in need. And officials believe the diminishing returns this year can be traced, at least in part, to people earmarking their limited philanthropic dollars toward Irene-related recovery causes.

“We are a little concerned,” UWAC Co-director Kate McGowan said on Monday of the 2011 fund drive, which is currently running around $35,000 behind last year’s pace.

McGowan and her United Way counterparts statewide agreed that Irene recovery efforts need charitable donations, even in the wake of new federal assurances of financial assistance for Vermont. The latest estimates place Irene-related damage statewide at around $570 million, with the state’s share projected at around $100 million, according to Vermont Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding. Vermonters traveling within the state have seen constant, tangible reminders of Irene’s damage and have responded with their checkbooks — using the United Way as a conduit for the money. The United Ways of Vermont have collectively accepted a combined total of $1,894,331 for the Vermont Disaster Relief Fund, Approximately $81,000 of that came through UWAC, noted Helen Freismuth, the organization’s co-director.

But while Freismuth and McGowan are pleased to see the groundswell of support for Irene victims, they are concerned that people might drain their limited donation dollars for one category of giving, thereby limiting what they can pass along to the United Way for other, year-round causes.

That concern appears to be well-founded in Addison County and other regions of the state.

Last year at this time, UWAC had raised 44 percent of its $750,000 goal — which happens to be the same target as this year. But as of Monday, UWAC had attained only 40 percent of its goal, around $35,000 short of last December’s tally, according to McGowan. She is hoping that people are able to dig a little deeper to support the other UWAC efforts that help sustain long-term services for the county’s poorest and frailest individual.

“We are hoping the ($81,000 for Irene) was a gift with an ‘and,’ not an ‘instead,’” McGowan said. “Our real concern about this is that it is ‘an instead of,’ and we are hoping that is not the case.”

The state’s recovery from Irene could take three or four years, McGowan noted.

“The reality is, the stuff that goes on every day in our community is still going on, with increased needs, decreased resources, and the reliance on United Way funds is really critical,” McGowan said. “Some of our agencies are serving people affected by Irene.”

Freismuth agreed.

“We are all hopeful that the community spirit that grew up in the aftermath of tropical storm Irene will sustain the important ongoing local health and human service organizations through gifts to United Ways,” she said. “The message that donors will understand is that we need to support both relief efforts and organizations that are doing important work all year long.”

OUTSIDE ADDISON COUNTY

The United Way of Windham County is around $100,000 off the pace of this year’s fund raising goal compared to last year — and that’s with a target ($500,000) that is $60,000 less than last year.

It should be noted that Windham County in Southeast Vermont was among the hardest hit by Irene.

Carmen Derby is executive director of the United Way of Windham County. She said county residents have been very generous in contributing toward Irene relief efforts, but worries they may not have enough left over to carry the United Way to its goal.

With that in mind, Derby and her colleagues are preparing ads, e-mail reminders and other publicity efforts to encourage donations.

“Maybe this is a good year for people who have never donated before to step up and make a difference,” she said of a new demographic she hopes will come through in the pinch.

“Every bit of support makes a difference.”

Nancy Zorn heads up the Green Mountain United Way, which serves Caledonia, Essex, Orange, Orleans and Washington counties — some areas that were also hit by Irene. Zorn said her organization is currently more than $10,000 behind the pace of last year’s campaign. Green Mountain United Way is trying to raise $600,000 this year — a little less than last year. She noted her organization also helped Barre recover from a bad storm in May; then Irene came three months later.

“It’s tough all the way around, along with the economy,” Zorn said.

Other United Way organizations, including those representing Rutland and Bennington counties, reported their fund raising campaigns are on schedule.

The Middlebury-based Vermont Community Foundation (VCF) has done a lot to channel aid from donors to Irene recovery efforts. But the organization has also been careful to specify that the need goes beyond one storm.

“We have been encouraging people who donate that they should also be paying attention to basic human services,” said Stuart Comstock-Gay, president and CEO of the VCF.

Representatives of area nonprofits said cuts in UWAC funding could take a significant toll on the services they provide — services that are in higher demand than in years past.

“It’s transformative support,” Jim Lockridge, director of The Hub teen center in Bristol, said of UWAC’s annual contribution, which amounted to around $8,000 this year.

That money, Lockridge said, supplements Bristol taxpayer funds, grants and donations that allow The Hub to remain a vibrant drop-in center for teens at the town’ recreation park. The Hub provides a safe, supervised spot for teens to do homework, get a snack, play games and stay productively active.

Lockridge said The Hub has been able to expand its hours, fortify staff, improve the adjacent skate park and upgrade music and other offerings for participants.

“We have created a space the kids just love,” Lockridge said.

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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