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Helping the helpers

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Donations drop with economic downfall

By Scotty McDaniel

John Sherman Clark makes the bands that hold Dean's Milk containers together when they ship. He gets up in the morning excited to work, to contribute to society like thousands of others in the city.

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But what sets him apart are the obstacles he has to overcome to do it all. Clark has Down syndrome and lost his sight in 2003.

He has had help. Shelby Center for Disability Services trains people with disabilities to work and contribute to society. That is where John learned his job before he lost his sight, and he continues to do it the same way he gets around his apartment -- by memory.

His brother, Jim Clark, says John has benefited from the services of Shelby Center for Disability Services for 28 years.

Now the non-profit agencies that exist to help those with problems are facing problems of their own. They're not receiving the contributions they need to function.

Industries and their employees tend to be the major contributors to organizations such as Metro United Way, an independent non-profit organization that funds local agencies that deal with helping kids succeed, building strong families, supporting health, and improving neighborhoods.

But since January, 568 industrial jobs were lost in Shelby County, and when people lose their jobs, they just can't afford to donate what they once could to charities.

"It's a direct reflection of our economy," Brian Webb, Vice President, Citizens Union Bank and 2008 Shelby County Fund Raising Chair, United Way. "Some of the companies we've relied on in the past are facing tough times and layoffs."

As a result, Metro United Way is concerned about obtaining its campaign goals.

"We're looking to be anywhere from $60,000 to $80,000 under where we should be by the end of the campaign," Roberta Steutermann, Donor Relationship Manager for Metro United Way, said.

The campaign that's running now will gather funds for 2009. In the Spring, Metro United Way will look at non-profit applications and makes funding decisions.

As the largest funder of many groups, Metro United Way's financial struggle would trickle down to its participating agencies.

Tara Clark, director of Shelby Center for Disability Services, said if her agency lost its funding from Metro United Way, the results could be catastrophic.

"Because of the nature of the services we provide, we have to maintain a certain staff to client ratio. And we would be facing a situation where we would have to lay off staff," she said. "And if we have to lay off staff, we cannot serve clients. Quite frankly, without the funding we just don't serve people."

Clients of her agency are disabled people who have fallen through the cracks of other programs, she said. The center offers them a quality of life that they otherwise might not find.

"The basic everyday things like socialization, and the opportunity to go out and enjoy a quality of life -- that would all be impaired. And if we're not serving them, they're not being served," she said.

Jim Clark said his brother, John, benefits too much from the center for it to lose its place in the community.

"It gives him motivation to get out of bed and go to work," he said. "He looks forward to getting a paycheck. He's doing something toward society. He likes socializing with the other clients, and it just makes him feel good inside."

Operation Care also relies on Metro United Way for most of its funding. It operates the only shelter and free medical clinic in the area. Executive Director Judy Roberts said the lack of funding could threaten everything the agency offers.

"With funding cut, depending on how deep the cuts would be, we'd possibly have to close our shelter," she said. "And we'd definitely have to cut back on the operating hours of the medical clinic. Those two things alone means there's going to be more homeless people on the streets, especially the clientele we serve, which is moms and children. And you're going to see a lot more sick people on the streets."

Roberts said she keeps a list of those who donate, and though the same people tend to donate each year, they're donating less than they normally would due to the economy.

Economic troubles also cause a double whammy, she said, because with so many layoffs Operation Care has seen more first time people asking for assistance than ever before.

The Dorman Center is one of the original agencies in the county to benefit from Metro United Way's funding. The center serves disabled or at-risk children that are 18 months to 5 years old.

Mary Simmons, recently retired as executive director of the center, had to make cuts in 2007 because of funding problems. She is still on Dorman's board of directors and said the center and its clients can't let more cuts happen.

"We have to raise money one way or another," she said. "We can't close the doors."

And it's not just the agencies associated with Metro United Way. Many other local registered charities are struggling just as much.

After 21 years of service in Shelby County, Helping Hands recently discontinued its service because it wasn't receiving enough funds from churches and businesses.

"People are going to fill their own needs before they give to charity, and that's very understandable," Simmons said. "But we need people to step up to the plate, and give what they can."

The credo for Metro United Way's campaign is Live United, and Webb said they're not asking for people to donate more, simply for more people to donate.

"This is certainly a time for the community to pull together," Tara added. "When they know that there's a need or a problem, they pull together for the common good.

"The community has never let us down."