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Hard times require more give and take

Ginny Ramsey calls them the "nouveau homeless," and she's worried that there will be far more of them coming her way this winter.

The Catholic Action Center of Lexington works with many of the nouveau poor, says Ramsey, its co-founder: People who were poised on the economic precipice, who had maybe had their work hours already cut back, but have now been laid off and plunged into an economic no-man's land.

The landlord won't wait any more, there's no car and no phone and sometimes, no place to even sit down and get a meal.

Ramsey worries that this winter is going to be filled with such people. She needs blankets, and toilet paper, and food: donated food, tailgaters' leftovers, food to sustain those who will be heading her way.

Damian and Drew have also been left homeless, by foreclosure on their owner's home: They're mixed-breed dogs who have been at the Lexington Humane Society since April. The Humane Society estimates that 25 percent of the animals coming in now are being given up because of the rocky economy. While Damian and Drew are relatively inexpensive — one $69 adoption fee covers them both — the Humane Society needs money and volunteers: It has a record 350 animals available for adoption.

People who are still comfortable, with heat on in the living room and high-speed Internet and glittering tins of Mighty Dog, may not see it coming.

But the Catholic Action Center and the Lexington Humane Society patrol that fine line that separates Lexington's prosperous from those who despair, and they can tell you: The economic hard times, they are already here.

Lexington's Meals on Wheels operates largely on the proceeds of a bequest from a former client, but director Nancy Ehmann frets that surging food prices will push her group's $5 a day meal deal for 235 Fayette County clients: "We raised the price in January, and we don't want to do it again."

Operation Read, which teaches literacy skills, ran into financial woes and was taken over by Kentucky's community and technical college system. It's glad to be out of the fund-raising business, especially now, says Wilma Clapp, the group's English as a second language coordinator: "The funds just weren't coming in ... so they just couldn't go on and pay salaries and do what needed to be done to keep it a viable organization."

At the United Way of the Bluegrass, president Kathy Plomin says that although giving is still strong, thanks in large part to a solid performance by Lexmark, she's worried about shrinkage from those at other companies who donate via payroll deduction: When those people lose their jobs, the paychecks stop coming. So do the charitable donations deductions.

Over at Kentucky Educational Television, Michele Ripley, head of the Commonwealth Fund, still looks for double-digit giving increases in the network's basic fund-raising.

For much of the Lexington area's charitable giving, the optimism still holds.

Still, there are cracks.

Says United Way's Plomin: "People are closer to needing services ... than they have been in a long time."

United Way's 2-1-1 service is seeing a spike in the number of calls it receives to link people with community services. Particularly disturbing: One of the top calls is for emergency food assistance.

David Kitchen, the United Way's communications director, says that in the third quarter — July 1-Sept. 30 — call volume almost doubled in 2008 over 2007, with 4,000 calls. The top three requests were for rent assistance, utility assistance and emergency food.

And the University of Kentucky hospital has postponed a campaign to raise more than $75 million because of the volatile stock market. Dr. Michael Karpf, vice president for health affairs, said he plans to wait six months, perhaps longer, before starting the fund-raising campaign.

"It's just hard to ask somebody in this kind of uncertainty to give millions of dollars," Karpf said. "It's hard to ask until I feel the economy has stabilized some."

The money would allow the Albert B. Chandler Medical Center to complete its new building by 2015. Now, the emergency room, lobby and two patient floors will open in 2010 and 2011. But six more patient floors and a floor of surgical and endoscopy suites won't be completed until 2018 or later, if UK is not able to raise $75 to $100 million, Karpf said.

Other needs are just as pressing: It's been a long time since Americans put off going to college in large numbers because of a flailing economy.

Both donations and the number of donors are up this year at the University of Kentucky, but chief development officer Mike Richey said he anticipates a downturn as the months progress.

"Every indicator is really strong right now, but we're right on the very fringe of a lot of uncertainty," Richey said.

The university completed its billion-dollar campaign at the end of 2007, Richey says, so "we're into a post-campaign situation now, which is probably very, very good from the standpoint of the economic uncertainty."

November and December are typically good months, but the donations have often included large transfers of stocks. In the last few months, stocks have been hammered, and hammered again.

Centre College is another school that's thankful it has concluded its major donations drive, in Centre's case a five-year campaign that concluded last December. Like UK, Centre has seen its donations increase this year, though its number of donors is running slightly behind, about 3 percent, says Richard Trollinger, vice president for college relations.

"We're not seeing any real impact yet, but I'm very much concerned about the rest of the year and year-end giving," Trollinger said.

For the next two to three months, many non-profits will sit tight and wait for an indication that factors such as the stock market and unemployment have bottomed out or when that might happen.

At the Blue Grass Community Foundation, which is a sort of clearinghouse for donors to direct gifts, the foundation staff is focusing on non-profits in crisis.

"Their investment income is down, which contributes to their operating budgets," said president and chief executive officer Anne Nash. "And contributions will be increasingly affected going forward, and that impacts the services they can provide."

Nash said there will also be a "sharp decrease" in donations of stock this year "for obvious reasons."

It's uncertain times for charitable giving. But that doesn't mean the need goes away: Non-profit organizations need the help, many of them even more than before the economy went sour.

The Ronald McDonald House depends on donations for most of its $634,000 budget. About 30 percent of those donations come from McDonald's owners and operators in the Bluegrass and canisters in the restaurants. The rest is raised locally, said Sarah Warner, executive director of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Bluegrass, which offers housing for the families of sick children and sponsors other children's health initiatives.

The most important thing is to keep asking for money, even though the economy seems rough, Warner says. People are afraid to ask because they assume donors have lost money. "You can't be afraid to ask," Warner says.

The top reason people don't give, Warner says, is simple: because charities don't ask.

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