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Need is Up, Giving is Down…Dec. 2, 2015

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By Nancy Arsenault
This past week, Stow was bustling with shoppers gathering items for the Thanksgiving feast and heading out to find a Christmas tree.  It’s the most wonderful time of year for many, but for others in Stow, the holiday season is far from merry and bright.

According to Stow’s social services volunteers, despite the appearance of affluence here, there are many residents  just struggling to survive. While many services are being funded as in the past, monetary donations are down and that has meant cuts to programs and an inability to serve all the requests that come from the town’s neediest people.

Louise Peacock, a former school nurse who has headed up Warm Hearts of Stow for nearly a decade, said her group is providing just about anything that a resident may request as part of everyday needs. That includes basic items for the kitchen or home, school supplies for children, clothing, food and seasonal items, such as Christmas presents.

She and several volunteers will not think about Christmas for their own families until the gifts requested by parents of over 50 children are purchased, wrapped and delivered. Some years, the Secret Santa delivery comes just before
Christmas Eve as volunteers continue to shop, sometimes with their own funds, if there are not enough donations to cover the requests.  “Parents have given us a wish list of 3 items per child. We don’t buy electronics or things like that; medium-priced gifts that will be something nice to open that they can use,” Peacock said of the Toy Drive program.

The 140 clients of Warm Hearts have been vetted through an application and review process, to ensure that need is real and that the services provided are offered to those who can benefit the most, Peacock explained. Even with this qualification system in place, the number of those requesting aid is growing significantly. Peacock said the client base increased 10-15% when the new affordable apartments opened at Pilot Grove II last spring. There has also been steady growth in seniors requesting assistance.

“It’s really the price of food that makes it hard for people,” she said. “Seniors on fixed incomes are trying to stay in their own homes, but the high cost of food is making it very difficult to make ends meet.” She said that food may not be purchased when other bills have to be paid.

Thanksgiving Bounty
Thanksgiving would not have happened for over 50 Stow families without the help of Warm Hearts, which, together with the students and staff at Center School, St. Isidore’s and the Union Church created dinner baskets of canned goods and nonperishables. Shelburne Farm donated a bag of apples for each basket, the Girl Scouts baked bread and Warm Hearts added a voucher for a turkey or other meat entrée at Shaw’s.

Peacock said that there are times when people just need a boost to tide them over until food stamps, a social security or pay check arrives. “We do just a little bit of grocery shopping for them or give them an emergency gift card,” she said.  Anyone they assist gets an automatic referral to the Stow Food Pantry as well.

Warm Hearts of Stow recently launched a Facebook page and is in the process of developing a PayPal online donation system. “We’re hoping to reach younger residents who are more familiar with making transactions online,” said Louise Peacock.  In the meantime, stamped and addressed donation envelopes are available at the Stow Post Office, Shaw’s, Colonial Spirits, Global Fitness and the Randall Library.

Food Pantry is the Grocery Store
“Most of the clients the Stow Food Pantry sees are retired and the working poor,” said volunteer Director Amanda Bennett. She added that the Pantry will never see all of the people who truly need their services, due to personal reasons and circumstances affecting those living on the edge.   “If you receive WIC, SNAP or any sort of governmental assistance, we can help. We will set up an appointment for you, you will need to bring a referral from anyone that can vouch for your needs (clergy, COA, Housing Authority, Social Worker, etc.) and then we will meet with you to assess your food requirements. Clients receive food once a month, enough for a week. “

Over the past few months, the client numbers at the Food Pantry have been up, with the space in the First Parish Church basement serving about 180 clients a month – 33% of them seniors, Bennett said.

The Food Pantry regularly schedules drives to collect nonperishable food items and also solicits monetary donations from local residents. Bennett said private donations are level with the past year, but this number reflects a decline over time, and that means a shift for those who do the purchasing of the Pantry inventory.  “Our Inventory Coordinator has been aggressive about purchasing when things go on sale and then holding them until we need them. We have had to eliminate some foods that were too expensive and limit the quantities of others. We typically offer a ‘luxury’ special each month, like vegetable oil or sugar and those would be cut,” she said, when funds run out to buy these items.
Of the money the Food Pantry does receive, including that awarded through grants or corporate gifts, 96% of the donations go directly toward purchasing food at a massive discount from the Greater Boston Food Bank, said Bennett.  “We supplement that with purchases from Shaw’s, particularly for perishable goods.  But when money is low, the first things to go are the toiletries, which are also the most expensive. The Stow Food Pantry calls these things ‘Dignity of Life’ items. Things like laundry soap, shampoo, adult diapers, deodorant, dish soap and dental care. It is pretty hard to feel good about yourself if you smell bad and are wearing dirty clothes.”

Need is Up –  Giving is Down
Both the Food Pantry and Warm Hearts receive significant donations from the Stow Community Chest, an umbrella organization managed by volunteers that solicits monetary donations from residents for a number of specialty programs and services in Stow.  With the annual fundraising drive in progress, financial giving to the Community Chest is down from earlier years.

“Donations were down about 15% last year compared to the year prior, including both individual contributions and business donations.  Last year, we were only able to fund $57,000 in grants, but had requests totaling $73,200,” said Kathy Sferra, Board member of the Community Chest.  That left programs without funding and others scrambling to fill the gaps.

Sferra said, “ The reality is that the organizations we fund serve a broad cross section of the Stow community. This includes victims of domestic violence, seniors in need of home-delivered meals, individuals with developmental disabilities and mental health issues, library and after school programs, those with financial hardship needing food, fuel, household goods and clothing, bereavement services, support groups for individuals with cancer.  As our community grows these needs are increasing.”

“Every year the Board considers all of the requests carefully.  We look at what a particular organization is doing for our community and how many residents they serve, and we consider how much funding we have available.  Last year, we had to reduce many of our grants, level-funded a few organizations, and increased funding for the Boys and Girls Club of the Assabet Valley, because they are currently serving so many Stow families.  Still we were not able to provide the full grant they had requested.

“In total we had 19 agencies request funding, and were only able to fully fund four of these requests.  Fifteen organizations received partial funding or no funding.  When we are unable to fund the full amount of a request, the organizations have to find other funding or reduce their level of service,” she said.

A Small Percentage Fund the Pot
The Community Chest counts on donations that regularly come in from about 350-400 people. That number of givers has remained steady for close to a decade, according to statistics kept by the charities. That same number is also donating to the Food Pantry and contributing directly to Warm Hearts. In a town of 6,590 or 4883 adult registered voters, those givers form a small percentage; one that the Town’s charitable groups hope will increase.

Steve Dungan, President of Stow Community Chest said, “The vast majority of our funding comes from individual donations from the community.  We also receive support from local businesses and half of the proceeds from the Stow Gobbler Road Race.  We are occasionally able to obtain grants.  One of our goals is to increase the number of individuals supporting the Community Chest, even if it is with a modest contribution of $25 or $50.  Every donation really does make a difference.

Online donations can be made at stowcommunitychest.org

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