Shallow Pockets : Economy Puts Damper on Charitable Giving

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is the season for giving, but charities say that people in Ventura County aren't giving enough.

A Scrooge-like economy has bruised philanthropic organizations this year, while demand for social services has risen, officials say. Government and company layoffs are hurting the United Way of Ventura County fund-raising campaign, and other charities report that their donations also have fallen off.

"It's the same old story: the recession," said Marti Kessler, United Way's director of fund raising. "So many companies are downsizing."

United Way of Ventura County is an umbrella group that raises funds and distributes them to 62 nonprofit agencies that provide food, shelter, housing, and medical and educational services to county residents.

The organization depends heavily on payroll deductions of employees, and hundreds of workers in Ventura County have lost jobs this year:

* The federal government work force--which contributed about $1.33 million last year--was reduced by about 7%.

* Wambold Furniture, one of the largest manufacturers in Simi Valley, laid off 105 of its 555 employees.

* A Ventura-based advertising company that published the Valley Shopper folded, putting 100 employees out of work.

* Abex Aerospace in October said it would close its Oxnard plant, putting 550 employees out of work or forcing them to take jobs elsewhere with the firm.

Last year, contributions to United Way of Ventura County fell $900,000 short of the $6.6-million goal. This year, officials set a less ambitious target of $5.1 million and have met 64% of the goal so far, Kessler said. The donation drive ends March 31, and Kessler said contributions are on schedule to meet the goal.

Other charities report they are also adjusting their goals.

Marine Capt. Scott Morton, who helps organize the Marines' Toys for Tots campaign, said it was able to fill all requests this year in distributing about 30,000 toys. However, he said, that was about 3,000 fewer toys than last year.

Catholic Charities, which provides food, clothing and housing assistance, also is spreading its resources thinner to accommodate the higher demand.

The organization--with offices in Thousand Oaks, Moorpark, Oxnard and Ventura--has distributed 542 food baskets in the last few weeks and given out 1,800 toys.

"We'll give one can instead of two or three cans," said Mary Ann Decaen, community services coordinator. "We figure a little assistance is better than no assistance."

One organization reporting that donations have remained fairly steady is the Salvation Army's bell-ringer brigade. Officials say demand increased about 7%, however.

"Last year, we fed 654 families in December," said Major Eddie Patterson, who is in charge of the Salvation Army office in Ventura. "This year it will be higher. We've already hit the 625 mark, and the month isn't over yet."

Some people, though, are still opening their hearts and their pocketbooks.

Two days before Christmas outside a Mervyn's store in Ventura, many last-minute shoppers paused to drop coins into a Salvation Army kettle.

Maile Cook, a 32-year-old Ventura waitress, said she throws money into every kettle she sees. The Salvation Army has helped her in the past, and she said she feels an obligation to return the favor.

Even though she can't afford to buy presents this year and so made most of hers by hand, Cook said she's a soft touch for charities.

"There's people out there worse (off) than I am," she said.

The one bright spot this holiday season, officials said, is that some people who can afford to give appear to be giving more. The sagging economy seems to have prompted increased feelings of gratitude and guilt, officials said.

For instance, although corporate donations have fallen at food pantries, workers at the pantries report an increase in people dropping in with gifts of turkeys, hams and canned goods.

United Way officials said they were surprised and pleased to note that some companies that have laid off many employees are still donating respectable amounts. Many of the remaining employees are giving at the same level or even higher, Kessler said.

VSE, a Camarillo engineering services firm, laid off about 80 employees this year, but the average gift per employee jumped 18%, Kessler said.

"It's guilt," said a VSE employee who asked not to be identified. "It's everyone's conscience that's talking. People are really counting their blessings."

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