After months of careful belt-tightening, Nancy Reisner finally gave in and turned the heat back on in Aunt Fannie’s Attic.
“We had to,” said Reisner, manager of the small thrift store on Reseda Boulevard that raises money for the National Asthma Center in Denver. “It was too cold.”
Belt-tightening tactics--leaving the heat off as long as possible, canceling plans for outreach or expansion, cutting back on programming--are evident in charities throughout the San Fernando Valley, as they begin their holiday season still stinging from the double-edged sword of disaster and recession.
Reisner does not expect to see Aunt Fannie’s Attic recover its $7,000 loss: The Northridge earthquake forced her to close the store for three weeks. After all, people are not buying new clothes now. Donations of unwanted clothing have dropped dramatically. And four other thrift stores in the neighborhood have closed.
The quake has altered the financial geography of charitable organizations in the last 10 months, becoming a bewildering friend to some programs and a cruel foe to others.
More than $1.5 million in earthquake donations were collected by United Way and distributed by the end of August, according to Barbara Bickel, a spokeswoman for the charity’s North Angeles Region. But other agencies report that while the money was available for earthquake relief, non-disaster-related programs suffered.
“Our budget is probably the biggest it’s been in a long time,” said Barry Smedberg, executive director of the San Fernando Valley Interfaith Council. But while his group’s earthquake relief program flourished, its Meals on Wheels program had to struggle along with fewer volunteers because of the disaster and strained resources. Only now are those programs returning to normal, Smedberg said.
Friends of the Family, a family support and resource center in Van Nuys, was one of 40 agencies to receive a contract from the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health under its Project Rebound, a federally sponsored program that provides counseling services for those traumatized by the earthquake.
But the Van Nuys group’s $100,000 contract will expire in February, leaving Executive Director Susan Kaplan trying to find other ways to continue the counseling. An extension of service would mean as much as a 10% increase in the organization’s $800,000 annual budget.
“We are seeing in crisis counseling about 65 clients every week,” said Kaplan, who added that families are still feeling the stress from the disaster.
With the recession and the string of disasters that have hit Southern California--the 1992 riots, the earthquake, the wildfires in October, 1993,--many people do not have the emotional resilience to bounce back any more. “We get, on average, five new clients a week,” Kaplan said.
BAD NEWS FOR CHARITIES
For charities and for everyone else, the earthquake made a shambles of future plans and canceled or delayed scheduled events, causing losses of funding. Volunteer ranks dropped because people either were too busy putting their lives back together, or they moved out of the Valley.
Girl Scouts had planned to start their annual cookie sale fund-raiser Jan. 29, but instead had to wait until March. The young fund-raisers were still out on the streets in May, trying to drum up support from an already exhausted pool of donors. As a result, the Girl Scouts raised only $539,000 this year, compared to $664,000 last year, said Debbi Turner, director of program services for the San Fernando Valley Girl Scout Council.
“We really felt people did everything they could to support the girls,” Turner said. But, she said, the loss of funding meant that grant writing--typically used to expand programs--went instead into earthquake relief efforts and to keep programs running.
Minor damage at the Boys & Girls Club of the San Fernando Valley in Pacoima caused membership to drop because parents believed the building was not safe for children during repairs.
Ten months later, with repairs finished, membership has increased dramatically compared to last year, but private funding has not, said LeRoy Chase, the club’s executive director. The organization has had to tap into reserve funds that it had set aside for youth programs this coming spring.
Support for ONE, the Organization for the Needs of the Elderly in Van Nuys, dropped considerably after the quake. The organization, which provides day care for seniors, also received minor damage during the quake. But many volunteers for the charity were not so fortunate.
“A lot of the people that would be volunteering are fixing their own homes up,” said Marilyn Fried, the organization’s executive director.
The Jewish Family Service-operated Valley Storefront in North Hollywood, which helps senior citizens and their families, received only one-third to one-half the funding of past years, said Director Dorie Gradwohl. Both the earthquake and the recession hurt.
Normally, at Thanksgiving, the center is inundated with donations of turkeys for needy senior citizens, but not this year. “This year it’s just from one organization and a few individuals,” Gradwohl said. “It’s much less.”
The nonprofit, non-sectarian center, which gets its funding from governmental sources, foundations, United Way and private donations, has received less this year across the board, Gradwohl said.
The biggest drop has been in individual contributions. Although such donations account for only about 5% of the center’s total revenues, the losses are still keenly felt, Gradwohl said.
St. Jane Frances Food Pantry in North Hollywood had to close down for three months in the summer while the quake-buckled floors and broken windows were replaced.
While the pantry was closed, clients were referred to other agencies, although some had no transportation. But now the facility is back in business, serving 150 to 170 families a week.
THE ECONOMY WAS BAD, TOO
Contributions to the annual campaign of the United Way North Angeles Region, which ended in July, were down slightly this year--to just over $60 million from $64 million raised in 1992-93. But the reason was the loss of jobs in the Valley because of the recession, Bickel said. She added, however, that some some employers have left the Valley because of the earthquake. Their departure has had an adverse effect on contributions.
“We have not had this kind of financial hardship since the Carter years,” said Lois Lee, who founded Children of the Night, a shelter for runaway children in 1979.
“We need money,” said Lee, adding that she has nowhere in her $1.6 million budget she can cut to make up for a $320,000 deficit. “Our contributions are down 20% from what they were last year.”
A $135,000 donation from television’s Roseanne Barr helped keep the 24-bed shelter afloat.
Lee blames her financial troubles squarely on the recession. Job layoffs and the moving of major aerospace companies from the Valley have left many people unable to give. A former aerospace worker, for example, wrote Lee recently that he was sorry he could not donate $25 a month as he had before. He sent a single check for $100 instead.
The recession also forced the Salvation Army’s San Fernando Valley Corps to cut its budget by dropping its annual Thanksgiving dinner for the poor and homeless, said Lt. Troi Trimmer, the corps’ corporate officer.
“My understanding, however, is that more churches in the Valley have that as a service,” Trimmer said, explaining why the Salvation Army meal was not deemed necessary. The Army’s clothing vouchers program was also dropped.
El Centro de Amistad, which provides counseling, tutoring and referral services for the Latino population in Canoga Park, has had to cut down on children’s field trips because bus service had become too expensive. The group dropped plans to move into a new building.
“I’m very optimistic with the new year approaching and the possibilities of grants,” said Angel Perez Jr., assistant executive director. “But our overall situation is depressing. We want to give these families what they need, but we just can’t. It’s tough.”
In Burbank, the Burbank Temporary Aid Center has survived one of its toughest years ever without cutting programs or services, although cuts could still be ordered without more help, said Cherie Combs, the executive director.
The shelter was giving out more food than it receives its donations, a difference of $19,000 in each of the last four months. Donations by private individuals and groups have shrunk, but Combs hopes for a rebound of generosity during the holiday season.
“People are becoming more focused on their own problems and the rising cost of living,” Combs said. “But we’re optimistic that donations will increase, that people will remember that there are less fortunate people out there.”
A SILVER LINING
The response to the earthquake became something of a blessing for many Valley charities. Julia Montez, executive director of the Valley District office of the American Red Cross in Van Nuys, remembered that “After the quake, donations came in steady: bags of money from around the country.”
Often, the organization received letters simply addressed to: “Earthquake Relief, Northridge CA.” The letter carrier brought it to the Red Cross office, Montez said. Inside would be a check already made out to the organization.
There is a surprising side effect to the quake. The long lines at food pantries are somewhat shorter than last year.
“There’s still plenty of need,” said Paul Heeschen, head of the West Valley Food Pantry in Woodland Hills. But in October the pantry served 583 families, down from 650 a year earlier.
The reason could be a mini-boom in construction as homes and businesses continue to rebuild. That boost may be helping the working poor who normally rely on food pantries.
“Be aware that this is temporary,” said Doris Bloch, executive director of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. “As soon as that boomlet stops, the Valley is going to be worse than anywhere else.”
Meet Each Need with Dignity, or MEND, a nonprofit group in Pacoima, almost went out of business last year when donations dropped to an all-time low, said Maria Franco, outreach coordinator.
“It’s weird, you know, but in a way the earthquake actually saved us,” Franco said. Valley residents opened their hearts and cleaned out their closets and pantries after the quake, donating massive amounts of food and clothing to MEND, which serves more than 500 families in an average week.
Since April, donations have slowed down somewhat--and so did the needs--but MEND still is able to draw upon its earthquake reserves to put together clothing and food packages for needy families in the northeast Valley.
MEND’s biggest need is for children’s clothing. With the holidays beginning, Franco said, the phone is once again ringing off the hook, with needy families trying to plan ahead to have enough food to eat and toys to give to the children.
“There’s a new surge of energy, new volunteers,” said Barbara Perkins, past president of the San Fernando Valley section, National Council of Negro Women. Although her group does not provide services, it is a link between groups like MEND and the needy. “People are saying they’re giving back because they got help after the quake,” Perkins said.
The group, which helps 65 African American families every month as part of a partnership with MEND and the Calvary Baptist Church, got 20 more members because of the quake.
TACTICS TO SURVIVE
As resources dwindle, charities are finding themselves increasingly in competition for help. Donors may decide that the earthquake relief contribution was enough for this year and may not make a donation to the agencies they ordinarily support.
Lee, at the Children of the Night, recommends something of an all-out attack and the use of sources that had not been tried before. She is lining up celebrity sponsors, and next week will be going to Washington, D.C., to solicit funding from the Justice Department.
Lee said it is necessary “to not have too much pride to ask for help,” but she added a warning to avoid appearing “too desperate.”
Perez at El Centro de Amistad is turning to grant-writing to compensate for a loss in corporate donations.
“There are more agencies seeking corporate donations, so the money has to be spread around,” Perez said. “It has reached a point where it’s very competitive between agencies. Whoever writes the best proposal will get the funding.”
Loaves and Fishes in Van Nuys, run by Catholic Charities, has stepped up its fund-raising efforts with a new brochure and better use of parish bulletins to get the word out.
“We are trying to tell more people about who we are and what we do,” said Barbara Ausburn, whose group suffered a 10% to 15% drop in funding from agencies like United Way even as expenses rose. “We are not doing as much marketing as we can.”
Meanwhile, ONE has hired a consultant to drum up recruitment and oversee fund-raising efforts. It is trying to avoid cutting services.
And charities may consider even more efficient ways of making it through difficult times, said Smedberg of the San Fernando Valley Interfaith Council. For example, food pantries may look into canning their own food, even getting clients to help, or bringing in more farmers’ markets to make less costly food more available, he said.
For Smedberg, the Valley Interfaith Council has come through the year, “leaner and meaner, perhaps,” he said.
Kaplan, at Friends of the Family, speaks with a lot of hope, despite the tightening of funding she will have to cope with soon.
“I’m an eternal optimist,” Kaplan said, adding that a difficult year “makes us have much greater resolve that the kinds of services we provide will continue to be there for them.”
If hardship builds character, local charities have gained a lot this year.
“My sense is we have all had a common bond and gotten though this together,” Smedberg said. “People have a better understanding about what charity is all about.”
Also contributing to this special report on charities were Maki Becker, Kay Hwangbo, Frank Manning, Tim May, Steve Ryfle, Jeff Schnaufer, Eric Slater, Alicia Doyle and Antonio Olivo, as well as Times staff writers L.D. Straub and Errol A. Cockfield Jr.