Help for Knoxville Non-Profits

The East Tennessee Foundation rallies to bolster local groups in peril

As local job losses, bankruptcies, foreclosures, and bad-news headlines of all flavors continue to mount, households, families, companies and individuals have no choice but to focus on self-preservation. People and groups who just a year ago might have been obsessed with "growth" are now justifiably concerned with simple survival. They are working hard to cut costs—from staffing to light bills—and maximize existing resources in order to just stay afloat from one Monday to the next.

The Knoxville-based East Tennessee Foundation (ETF) intentionally bucked that trend in early January by announcing $100,000 in emergency year-end grants to 19 of their regional non-profit clients.

"What we're calling this is a storm," says Michael McClamroch, President & CEO of the East Tennessee Foundation. "People need to know that the storm is here, now, and it is real. People read headlines about Goody's closing and Sea-Ray closing. They need to understand that on the other side of those headlines there are real people. They're in need. And they're hurting. This is a time to be more active. It's a time to be giving more, not less.

"This is the first time that we've done emergency year-end giving. These are precious, precious, dollars. So we chose groups that have a great track record. Another reason we did that was to set an example. It's time for all of us to gut it up and step up. This is not a time to circle the wagons."

The ETF is going through the same crunch as the non-profits they've chosen to assist, along with countless others beyond their bailiwick. Even though the group has increased its grants and giving in the past year, it has done so with a reduced operational budget. But diminished resources do not alter the grim reality of drastically increased need among non-profits and the many thousands they serve here and nearby.

"We did not have time to request proposals and convene a grants panel," says McClamroch, with regard to the urgency of the situation as perceived by ETF. "We decided to focus on human needs; food and shelter. We tried to determine which groups were getting increased demands even while they were cutting back. Since we serve all 25 counties in East Tennessee we looked for groups that might work in more than one county. Second Harvest is a perfect example. They do an enormous amount of work outside of Knox County."

At Second Harvest's large Delaware Avenue warehouse, the activity is similar to what you might find at any other large grocery-processing facility. Competing boomboxes from different quarters play over the back-up alarms of forklifts in constant motion. Tunnels are formed by 40-foot pallet stacks of everything from Little Debbie snack cakes to feminine hygiene products. There's enough fragrant fresh food present to make a visitor hungry and imagine some possibilities.

One anomaly to suggest that this is not just any other large grocery-processing facility happens in a cold corner niche. Two young men break into pallets on either side of them and load snack crackers and clusters of single-serving puddings into brightly colored backpacks. By the time you read this, those backpacks will have been shouldered home by kids in any of 150 different schools in 18 East Tennessee counties. And for some of those children, those backpacks are their only source of food while away from school.

"We stole the idea from an Albuquerque, New Mexico affiliate," says Elaine Streno, executive director of Second Harvest. "We had a grant in Scott County, and our first school was an elementary school in Scott County. This principal tells me, ‘You have no idea how thankful we are. I know at least six kids who go home on the weekends and don't get one thing to eat.' I've been doing this for 15 years and even I didn't realize that kind of thing was going on. We're spending $35,000 every two or three weeks on mac-and-cheese, the peanut butter crackers, and yogurt bars that we put in those backpacks that can stay fresh over the weekend."

Second Harvest processes donated surplus food that's out of season (think Christmas cookies, not grapes) or cosmetically blemished but still perfectly edible, for a negligible processing fee. Produce is passed along with no fee. As grocers have groomed their own processes to reduce surplus, Second Harvest has compensated by actually buying most of its food. Although no useful gifts would be turned away, Streno says they can accomplish more with a monetary gift (roughly three meals per dollar) than with the non-perishable culls from your pantry.

More than a hundred agencies, from church soup kitchens to The Salvation Army, distribute Second Harvest foods for free to those in need. From January to December of 2008, demand for Second Harvest's groceries rose by 48 percent. Donations to Second Harvest have also risen, but not in sufficient proportions.

Streno says, "It was unbelievable how many letters we got from people this past fall, from people who said ‘I used to give to you, now I need you.'

"This has hit home I think for everybody. That could be me. That could be any of us. Going to work, have no clue, get to the office, the job's gone. I don't think people are taking that for granted any more. That could be me, so I'm going to give because I can. Let's take care of each other."

In spite of the widespread need for what Second Harvest and its clients provide, Streno senses that some people still don't get it. That lack of comprehension happens for a variety of reasons. Often, it's not so much that there are still people who don't actually know any persons or families in need of assistance. Rather, no old rules apply.

"Don't stereotype hunger," cautions Streno. "Don't think that what you see in front of the Volunteer Ministry Center is the picture of hunger. That's the picture of mental illness. That's the picture of addiction. The picture of hunger is that little kid in Scott County who goes home and for whatever irresponsible or dysfunctional things that are going on at home, they're not getting anything that they need. Think about what that does emotionally to a kid, to have to worry about their next meal. That's what we talk about when we talk about the face of hunger. It could be anybody. It could be the person living next door to us and we wouldn't know about it."

One of the agencies that dispatches Second Harvest's groceries free of charge (along with food donated by others and food purchased from Food City at a discount) is the Ladies of Charity Emergency Assistance Center on Dameron Avenue, across from the health department. Ladies of Charity is affiliated with the Knoxville Catholic Diocese. Like Second Harvest, Ladies of Charity received one of ETF's year-end grants.

"They come to us for a variety of reasons," says Amy Drews, Program Coordinator, of those who visit Ladies of Charity and receive three days' worth of food and a clothing voucher redeemable at their thrift shop around the corner. "This past year a lot of people were living paycheck to paycheck. Then maybe they lost a job. It might be a single mother trying to make a transition. We see a lot of elderly people on fixed incomes. When they have an illness or an injury, that might take away from money that had been budgeted for food."

On the last Friday of January it's spitting snow. Fortunately, everyone waiting to be served is able to sit in the waiting room. That's not always the case, and lines out the door are not uncommon. Volunteer Kate MacDonald is loading groceries into bags for clients. There's no sliced bread today, so she asks each customer if they're interested in small loaves donated by Panera that morning. No one declines.

In January, Ladies of Charity shortened its hours of operation in an attempt to save money spent on payroll for its small staff. They've since returned to normal hours (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.). But last month gave Drews and her group's clients a suggestion of what might happen if demand continues to grow at a pace faster than resources.

"That's really frightening," Drews says, considering the prospect of reduced services for any reason. "Money is an issue for all non-profits in this economy. We have seen a tremendous increase in the number of clients this past year. We gave out a little more than 180,000 meals this past year. That's up from 140,000 in 2007; 70,000 of those meals we gave out last year were for children. So those children might be going hungry."

Non-profits are in peril, as are we all. Nevertheless, a lot of groups and individuals continue to support and execute work that is crucial to the community for no other reason than that it must be done. If you can embrace McClamroch's storm metaphor, he seems to think of the current plight of non-profits as both the cloud and the silver lining.

"With this economic downturn," says McClamroch, "the only real comparison that people are making is the Great Depression. The difference is that we now have an enormous non-profit infrastructure. And I think that is what will help us weather this storm.

"The good news is that we come from a region that is fiercely independent, but also incredibly generous. They help their neighbors. For that reason, I think we'll fare better than any other region during this downturn."