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Nonprofits in Anniston, Alabama

By Alison Gene Smith

ANNISTON — In times of economic recession nonprofits tend to suffer, but in Anniston most organizations are keeping their heads above the water. Leaders of many local organizations are reexamining their budgets and looking for new ways to raise money.

This year, with the city of Anniston’s total expenditures shrinking by 1.05 percent many feared that funding to nonprofits from the city would be reduced or cut.

Some city wide sacrifices were made in order to make up the money. Earlier in the month, the city council voted to raise the garbage collecting fees from $7 to $10. Annual raises for city employees were also left out of the 2011 budget.

After the budget was finalized, most area nonprofits found that the amount they received from the city was the same or more than in the 2010 budget. In total, 32 outside agencies were funded for the 2011 budget up from 31 in 2010.

“Interfaith has not been cut by any municipality. We have actually had increases from Oxford, Anniston and United Way,” said Martha Vandervoort, the executive director at Interfaith Ministries which is based in Anniston.

Interfaith Ministries is a group of religious organizations throughout Calhoun county that pools their resources to provide services to people and families in need.

Some of their services include utility assistance, a homeless shelter, Meals on Wheels deliveries and raising money for dental care and school supplies. Vandervoort said she thinks their funding continues to grow because cities see the value of her group’s efforts.

The Calhoun County Commission also added the organization to their annual budget for 2011.

“I asked the county for the first time and they gave me more than I’ve asked for,” she said.

According to Vandervoort, government funding is actually a small percentage of their overall funds. Out of the group’s half million dollar budget, $25,000 came from Anniston, a $5,000 increase from last year. About $12-15,000 came from Oxford this year.

“We have worked hard to inform these entities about what we are doing,” she said.

Vandervoort said that the money from cities goes straight to services for people in those communities.

“It helps us do more benevolence,” she said.

Interfaith has seen its funding grow slightly, but has experienced a dramatic increase in the number of people seeking their services.

“We are seeing greater need than ever and have had to drastically cut the amount of assistance we can give,” said Vandervoort.

Interfaith has been in Anniston for 35 years and has worked to be frugal by working with many agencies in the area as to not duplicate services already provided in the area.

Interfaith strives to prevent homelessness, but also supports those who have lost their homes.

“Serving the homeless is low cost,” said Vandervoort, “We can get them a shower and some clothing, help apply for ID or give some gas money.”

Vandervoort said the agency has had to give a hard look at the cost of some programs that many people depend on daily, such as Meals on Wheels. Interfaith pays a local hospital to provide the meals that are then delivered by volunteers. Most recipients pay a small fee for their meals. However, recently Vandervoort has seen an increase in people needing discounts.

“We’ve been getting calls off the hook for people needing free meals,” she said.

For this reason Interfaith has been forced to accept fewer and fewer people into the program.

“I’ve told them not to take more free people,” said Vandervoort, adding that often they take a meal or two a week to people they have not been able to accept and check in on them.

“Sometimes we get canned food too,” she said.

Vandervoort said she’s seen many cases where people pay for one discounted meal to split between two people, or spread it over several days.

“We don’t want to let the program go under. We can’t just take on 15 new free people. We’re still paying the bill for the meal,” said Vandervoort.

Programs like Meals on Wheels and utilities assistance that can prevent people from losing their homes are expensive, said Vandervoort.

“On the prevention part of things, you can’t get enough money,” she said adding that Interfaith has been dipping in to its reserve fund every month for while now.

“When you see a woman who needs $400 for rent, or her and her four children will be out; when I hear those kind of things I want to bend over backwards,” said Vandervoort.

In cases like this Interfaith tries to see how much money the individual can come up with to help themselves and then works with utilities and land lords and tries to come up with a compromise that will keep the person in their home.

Sometimes, Vandervoort said, people feel like they’re in a bottomless pit.

Although times seem gloomy, Vandervoort said she sees the good come out in people and is proud to represent the religious community through Interfaith’s works.

“I see God providing through our agency,” she said.

In a recent Meals on Wheels meeting a member from a local church sat in and the next Sunday put the agency on the church’s prayer list.

“The next day someone walked in with a $5,000 donation,” said Vandervoort, “I want to get on all the prayer lists,” she added, laughing.

There is often good news in the grim reality, said Vandervoort.

Since it is difficult to get funding from grants, Vandervoort said that the organization relies heavily on community funding.

“We depend on individual and church donations for a lot of our funding and need to see more of that as other grant sources are not there,” she said. “I feel that local communities are going to have to step up to help the needy.”

About a third of Interfaith’s budget is from church and individual donations.

“In an ideal world there’d be enough support from churches to feel like we didn’t need to look in all these other places,” said Vandervoort, “I don’t think there’s enough money for all the need.”

Although she appreciates the funding from local governments Vandervoort worries that in future times of economic hardship that money might not be there.

“We can no longer depend on governments,” she said, “There’s so many strings attached to that money. I feel like local people need to step up and help local people.”

Vandervoort said that many people believe stereotypes about those who get money from the government.

“People feel like the government is taking care of everybody and that’s a misconception. Yes, lots of people get government checks, but none of them are enough,” she said, “People say, ‘Isn’t she a welfare mom?’ and I say, ‘How would you make it on $620 in food stamps and three children?’”

Vandervoort stresses the importance of community members coming together to help their neighbors, not just to rely less on the government, but because it means more.

“Getting a fan is more personal than getting a check that says ‘Go buy a fan,’” she said.

For Vandervoort, it is important that people are directly involved in helping the communities.

“It’s not enough to say,’ I gave to the United Way, I’m not giving any more’ or ‘I paid my taxes, I’m not giving any more,’” she said.

The Northeast Alabama Bicycle Club, based in Anniston, works to promote safe mountain and road biking, both as recreation and a means of transportation. They are to receive $20,000 from the 2011 city budget.

Club president, Curtis Cupp, said that the city puts that money toward paying for the annual Noble Street Festival, which the Bicycle Club hosts every April.

Cupp said that the festival brings 8,000 to 10,000 people to downtown Anniston every year during the Saturday festival.

Since Anniston was reported to be the most toxic town in America on 60 Minutes 10 years ago the group wanted to show that it was safe to come outside.

“When it gets dark nobody’s glowing,” said Cupp.

The Bicycle Club spent $120-130,000 on last year’s event, said Cupp, and about 20% of that was given to them from Anniston’s city budget.

Cupp said that they started the festival to go along with the group’s annual Chelsea Challenge bike ride, which now includes 700-800 riders from 24 states, and four countries.

The club saw that people from all over would come to the race on the day of, and then leave. Now people stay in Anniston for the whole weekend.

“Folks bring their families in, stay at local hotels and it’s a way to get people to come downtown,” said Cupp, “It’s probably the biggest festival in Anniston.”

Besides the bike race the event includes a local restaurant tour, live music and children’s activities.

Along with helping out local businesses, Cupp said that the group collects rider’s fees to donate to the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, and last year raised about $13,000.

“I’d say over the last six years we’ve donated about $70,000,” he said.

Cupp said he thinks the City sees a return on its investment in the Bicycle Club’s festival, but that he had heard about this year’s budget woes.

The group considered what would happen if they lost city funding he said, and added that they’re used to fundraising.

“We saw that may happen, fortunately for us it didn’t happen,” said Cupp, “We know it’s hard times everywhere. We’ve been fortunate. Every time we’ve lost a sponsor, we’ve had two replace them.”

Cupp said that he thinks this is because people in the area value what the group does for the community, such as having helmet fittings and give-aways for kids.

“The city came back on for their usual, and we’ve every sponsor come back,” Cupp said of this year’s funding.

When looking at the way nonprofits are funded in general, Cupp said he thinks a mixture of public and private funding is ideal, citing his own group’s model.

“I can’t speak for other organizations though,” said Cupp, “really we just put on an event for the community. We’re doing something to help try and build our community.”

Carol Kirk, the executive director of the Red Cross in Anniston said about five percent of their annual budget comes from the City of Anniston.

“Not getting that money would have had a major affect on us,” she said.

Kirk said they also receive some money from the Calhoun County Commission and from adjacent Jacksonville. This money must cover all of Calhoun and Cleveland counties.

Anniston’s Red Cross received less money from the United Way this year and has been told its funds were directly impacted by the economy.

The majority of the agency’s funds come from fees for their Health and Safety Program classes.  Kirk said there are CPR, first aid and babysitting classes, among others.

Money from the City of Anniston goes directly into the Red Cross’ disaster fund. Other money they receive is earmarked for helping local members of the Armed Forces with things like emergency communication with family members. This is mandated by congress, said Kirk.

Much of the service the local Red Cross does involves helping families after a house fire, or weather related incident. Last year Kirk said the agency assisted 61 families in their coverage area.

After a fire or other event the Red Cross goes to the site and works with the family after the fire department has left. They help find them shelter, usually in a local hotel, provide them with clothing and groceries and can also give a small amount of money towards a funeral if the fire was fatal, said Kirk.

“We get them through the red tape,” she said.

Kirk said the Red Cross is also responsible for opening shelters for multiple families in the case of a larger event like a tornado. The agency makes agreements with churches and community centers who say they will open their doors in an emergency.

Although they were funded by cities this year, Kirk said the Red Cross has been working to be self reliant.

“We have to be able to raise money in different ways,” she said adding that the Anniston Red Cross has been doing more fund raisers lately because they feel that they can’t rely on outside sources.

“We’re responsible for raising $205,000 locally,” she said, but they try for more.

Along with more fund raising, the Red Cross is doing with fewer paid staff members. Last December one employee retired and their job was not replaced. They now have two paid staff members and rely heavily on volunteers.

Despite this Kirk says the Rod Cross has not cut programs, and is in fact beefing up its community education program. This program teaches elementary school children disaster preparedness, water safety, bus safety, how to be safe while home alone and hygiene.

“Things like don’t cross in front of the bus until you have the driver’s attention,” said Kirk.

Kirk said the program reached 3,500 students in the past two months and 2,000 last April and May during the water safety events.

In order to reach so many people Kirk said that volunteers are instrumental.

“I believe it takes all of us,” she said.

One nonprofit that was not safe from the budget ax was the Spirit of Anniston, the downtown revitalization project.

For the past three years, the group has received about $190,000. For 2011 it will be halved to $95,000.

The group’s chairperson, Ann Welch, said in a letter to The Star, that the group has a proven track record, and yet she feels it is required to try harder than most groups to justify to the city why it should get its full funding.

“I’ve never understood why some city fathers didn’t understand the nature of economic redevelopment in a historic downtown,” said Welch.

Councilman Ben Little said he thought the Spirit should have been completely cut and did not meet his expectations.

“The director didn’t listen, nor did the board,” he said, “Talk with business people down town, make contact with businesses. The tax payers’ money was not to be given to them to coordinate a farmers market or the Civil Rights Trail. Those things can be done with other organizations in the city. We want business and industries in here.”

Little said that the Spirit could have worked with local realtors to attract more businesses to the downtown area. According to Little spending money in other areas would help the downtown more than coordinating the farmers markets or parades.

“She [the director] had the background to do it, to make contacts,” said Little.

Welch said that the Spirit hand delivered reports to the council detailing their activities.

According to the Spirit’s website, the group’s mission is “to stimulate thoughtful development using the National Main Street Four Point Approach of organization, promotion, economic restructuring and design.”

Betsy Bean is the executive director of the Spirit of Anniston and is the only full time staff member of the organization. She said in an earlier story in the Star that the cuts will affect the hours of the part time staff members, and they will begin to rely even more heavily on volunteers. Bean also said that a combination of visual improvements, downtown events and attracting new businesses will revitalize Anniston’s downtown.

“At this time, I’d rather not make any further comments until we firm up our plans,” said Bean.

Little said that in general he appreciates greatly what nonprofits do for the City of Anniston.

“You cannot measure what nonprofits do by money and statistics,” he said.

Little stressed that it is important for the city to fund these organizations partially, but they must continue to try to become more self reliant and to cut costs.

Little said that he believes preventing people from losing their homes and building community before things get bad is key.

“The poor will always be with us,” he said. “You can either try to help on the front end of things, or do something about it on the back end. That’s when they do something or go to jail.”

Despite this he wants to see nonprofits be more independent.

“Even though they’re providing a service that’s good for the community, the city just can’t fund them. They money is just not there. They have to find some other funds to do that,” said Little.

One solution he proposes is for a cooperative of nonprofits to buy the old Anniston Star building, which the city recently purchased and is renovating.

“I won’t vote to give it to them, I’ll sell it to them. It’s a prime time now,” he said.

Little reasons that under one roof the agencies can do more than if they are spread all over the city. He said alternatively, the city could rent it to them at a discount and help with utilities that would be less money with several organizations sharing the cost.

“A lot of things can happen in that one area,” he said.

Little also said that leaders of local nonprofits need to be more vocal to the city council.

“Sometimes they’re timid,” he said, “Elected officials are there for the citizens.”

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