The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

March 20, 2013

Agencies look beyond gifts to help needy at holidays

Randy Griffith

JOHNSTOWN — What began as a meeting to improve holiday distributions by local agencies serving the needy expanded Wednesday to begin developing an improved network to connect donors and recipients and help those struggling to make ends meet.

Representatives from more than a dozen charities, churches and nonprofit organizations brainstormed for about 90 minutes Wednesday morning at Pennsylvania Highlands Community College.

Although holiday toy and gift distributions catch the public’s attention, the agencies see the events as one part of their overall missions, the representatives said.

“The real aspiration is the goal of moving people into better circumstances – to get them some real help,” said Mike Kane, president of Community Foundation of the Alleghenies.

Addressing needs such as education and employment skills can help more than holiday gifts, he added.

“We as agencies want to stabilize that family,” Dawn Karsaba of Catholic Charities said, suggesting help with heating bills as a holiday gift.

Identifying the real needs and helping clients understand what is available and how to use the assistance to improve self-sufficiency are two important factors, but donors also need better information, Trish Corle of Corle Consulting said.

Karsaba agreed, adding that it is important to match the donations with the recipients. Those working with the needy can be frustrated by the focus on toys and gifts at the holidays, she added.

“These mass donation programs don’t always work,” Karsaba said. “They spend all this money, and we see our auditoriums full of Christmas gifts, and we think, ‘Wow, this is great, but we could have done so much more (with the cash).’ ”

A number of donated items in the Marine Corps Reserve’s local Toys for Tots program were thrown out one year because the organization does not have storage space between holidays, representative Dennis Pentrack said.

“The challenge is: We are trying to be a community fix for individual needs,” said Paula Eppley-Newman, executive director of Beginnings Inc.

“We are all serving the same community. We need to do it smarter.”

A shared database of potential clients that identifies needs but maintains confidentiality would be a valuable tool, several agency leaders said.

The ideal program would not only improve distribution of donations, it could encourage more donations by showing benefactors that their philanthropy is making a real difference, said Bill McKinney, United Way president.

Indiana County agencies are working on a database, Corle said, adding that she formerly directed the United Way of Indiana County.

A centralized intake program will help, Eppley-Newman said, but communication among agencies and with the general public will also be important.

McKinney said he will take the suggestions and problems shared at Wednesday’s meeting and expand with the results of a Somerset County meeting scheduled for 9 a.m. today in Somerset Hospital. Information from the Indiana County system will be added to the mix for future meetings planned to structure the network, McKinney said.

“I think the work we did today is very important to try to uncover all the issues,” McKinney said. “It does seem like we have a framework set. That was one of the goals for today. Now how do we move forward?”

Eppley-Newman thanked the United Way team for setting up the program.

“This was needed,” she said.


Not just a handout

What: United Way of the Laurel Highlands forum on serving families and children who are in need.

Who: Agencies, churches and other organizations serving Somerset County families.

When and where: 9 a.m. today, Somerset Hospital.

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