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Restocking the shelves

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I’ve discovered over the last few months that people see Catholic Charities as a bellwether for the economy. When I talk to donors, reporters and the like, the first thing they always want to know is, “How bad is it?” The economy keeps changing so quickly that the size and scope of the meltdown is hard to grasp. I think they figure our data about how many people need help, and how many people are giving it financially, will help them figure out the size of the shark underneath that fin in the water.

The answer is, lots more people are asking for help, and more people are giving it than you might think. The need is so high, though, that our ‘shelves’ are emptying out again.

For Catholic Charities, the last six months of 2008 were the first half of our year. During that time, people kept giving. Our wonderful, regular, faithful donors were stalwart. They understood the needs our clients are facing and they gave. The parishes that always help us did it again -- and with an inspiring generosity. For example, no fewer than 4,700 people, corporations and foundations gave between the beginning of July and Thanksgiving.

Many of those who support us regularly couldn’t give as much as they have in previous years but, we had enough brand new donors join us that we mostly made up the difference -- almost 300 new donors between July and November alone. State government funding suffered, and is continuing to do so. We lost about $500,000 in late October, and may lose more in the current round of 9-C cuts. All in all, however, I was encouraged and heartened by our ability to raise support for the people we serve in those six months.

That being said, the number of people who need us is staggering. At Catholic Charities, we wrap ourselves around the whole family and its needs, so we do a lot of things. Right now, people tend to be most interested in what is happening in our Basic Needs services -- food, utility and rent support, among other resources. Between September and December of 2008, we had roughly 22,400 requests for Basic Needs support. Twenty-two thousand families in four months boggles the mind. Imagine how tough things would have to be for you and your family to come ask for help paying your bills. Yet, 22,400 families came to Catholic Charities alone in that situation, and we’re not the only ones who do this kind of work.

Fortunately, we were able to help nearly 10,000 families with food, and about another 400 with rent and utility assistance. We anticipate that we will do significantly more than that in January through March. The United Way, for example, has raised new Community Fund money that will allow us to increase the number of people to whom we can give utility support. We also anticipate, however, still higher demand between now and the end of winter.

So, we already know it’s a pretty big shark and we don’t know how much bigger it will get over the next six months. What we do know is that, in this economy, we cannot serve anywhere near everyone who needs it, and that we are tapping our resources -- both financial and physical -- to do everything we can. We will be pushing hard to restock our shelves, literally and figuratively, over the next few months, and are hopeful that peoples’ generosity and ability to give will keep some pace with the need out there.

It’s a big shark. We will keep trying to figure out how to feed the beast. We will also continue to need help restocking our shelves as a result.

Tiziana C. Dearing is president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston.

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