Charities across state struggle more than ever

Charitable groups that help families across Kentucky celebrate the holidays are in need of help themselves.

"I am very uncertain what to expect" this Christmas season, said Maj. Debra Ashcraft of the Salvation Army. With registration still open, some 2,300 families have signed up to receive toys from the organization, she said. That's equal to the total number last year.

It's the same all over.

"Last year, we had 14,000-plus children," said Ginny Ramsey of the Faith and Community Christmas Store, where families can get free gently used toys. "It kind of scares us about what this year's needs will be."

Donations to the Salvation Army are down overall, Ashcraft said, although the amount collected by bell ringers is up slightly from last year.

"Giving is still strong," she said. "The question is whether it will keep up with the need."

But there is a shortage of volunteer bell ringers at the Salvation Army's donation kettles. Last year, 100 groups provided bell ringers, she said. This year about 75 groups are helping.

Ramsey said she depends on about 1,500 to 2,000 volunteers to help with the store, which is open Dec. 21 to Dec. 23. Every year, she said, things tend to work out, although she is not quite sure how or why.

"We just walk on faith," she said.

Karla Darnall of the Lexington Fraternal Order of Firefighters is feeling the same squeeze. Requests for toys from the annual Firefighter Toy Program are up, but donations are way down.

"We're really pushing for toy donations," Darnall said.

Last year, the program helped provide presents for about 2,800 children; this year the group expects to need gifts for about 3,000, she said.

"People can clean out their garages, attics and warehouses and donate," Darnall said. To raise money for the toys, the firefighters are having several fund-raisers, including selling a 2010 fireman calendar.

There can be a way to make things work, said Mary beth Kench. She is communications and events coordinator for the Kingsport, Tenn., Chamber of Commerce, which sponsors The Santa Train that ran from Pike County, Ky., to Kingsport on Nov. 21:

Donations were up this year, thanks to a first-time gift of $120,000 worth of toys from Kids Wish Network. The Santa Train gives away about 15 tons of toys, clothes and treats every year, and this year, it topped 15 tons. Increased publicity efforts on Facebook and Twitter helped, Kench said.

But even as the holidays approach, groups that provide basic services are stretching their dollars.

God's Pantry Food Bank is seeing an increase in need. The organization just finished distributing more than 5,000 Thanksgiving dinner boxes, up from about 4,000 last year, said Rebecca Wallace, senior development manager.

Requests for help from the food bank, which takes referrals primarily through social workers and ministers, are up about 32 percent year-round, she said.

That means they are having to stretch everything further.

"Food donations for local pantries have been down this year," Wallace said.

A few more families are seeking help this year from the Community Action Council, which provides heating assistance in Central Kentucky. The $570,000 allocated for that assistance should hold out until the program ends Dec. 11, spokesman Cameron Minter said. Some 4,000 families have been helped, he said, just a little more than last year.

Robin Gabbard of Buckhorn Children and Family Services in Perry County said even child-care providers are struggling.

"We are on a limited budget from the state for reimbursements," Gabbard said. "The state pays the same in December as it does in July. There's always a gap between the reimbursement to the child-care providers and what it costs that provider. At Christmastime, that gap is larger."

The center works with 180 children who are in residential treatment programs or foster care.

Those who generally struggle are struggling a bit more.

Dan Heaberlin, pastor of First Church of God in Paintsville, said the church's food pantry usually serves about 70 families a week, but 119 families have come through each of the past two weeks. In November and December demand is usually up, and demand in the poorest parts of the state never really goes down.

Donations from God's Pantry and the government aren't enough to cover what the church needs.

The church is lucky to have augmented its supply with a grocery chain's regular donation of near-expired perishable food that otherwise would have been thrown away.

It's the same at Thankful Hearts Food Pantry in Pike ville, director Trissa Scott said. The pantry, which usually serves 1,200 to 1,800 families a month, has run low on food and is having trouble putting together its annual Christmas giveaway of toys and clothing, she said. Several of Thankful Hearts' food suppliers are other charities, and those sources have dried up, Scott said.

In preparation for economic difficulty last year, the Christian Appalachian Project budgeted accordingly for the fiscal year that started in September, said Sue Sword.

"Right now our giving is holding where we're budgeted to hold," she said. "In preparation for what might be happening this year, our budget is pretty flat.

"Need is up tremendously, especially in already distressed areas."

The organization's food pantry in Mount Vernon is having trouble keeping enough food on hand to serve its families.