Charities seek residents' help as resources decline

Southwest Austin groups ask for supplies, funds and volunteers

The students socializing in the Capital Area Food Bank parking lot in Southwest Austin do not match the stereotype of philanthropists.

Local nonprofit A Legacy of Giving is trying to change that preconceived notion.

"Somewhere along the way, the idea of philanthropy morphed into [an activity] only for the wealthy," Executive Director Linda Brucker said. "In our K–12 curriculum, we teach students that if they give their time and their talents, they can help remediate social issues."

On Nov. 20, students from 36 Austin-area schools gathered at the food bank for a Day of Service celebration.

Dressed in "I am a philanthropist" T-shirts, they unpacked their donations—47,767 pounds of canned goods for the food bank and 4,402 coats for the Junior League of Austin's Coats for Kids drive.

Brucker said she thought the students became involved because they had seen the effects of poverty firsthand. When they give, these students may be helping their classmates, she said.

"Many of these kids go to [economically disadvantaged] schools and are the recipients of free and reduced lunch or breakfast," she said. "Forty-one thousand children in Travis County have food insecurity [not consistent access to nutritious food]. That's unacceptable."

Charities are reminding residents about how they can make a difference toward alleviating the challenges of poverty.

"We're really seeing a tale of two cities here in Austin," said Karen Frost, director of nonprofit relations at I Live Here, I Give Here, a group that connects residents to nonprofits. "You have the hip music, Formula One side where this is a hot and happening place to be. On the other side, you have a family trying to make a living on less than $25,000 [per year]."

Frost said this year has been "a perfect storm" for groups who help the poor.

"The stimulus money [to cities] ran out, and federal and municipal money is not what it was five years ago because of the recession," she said. "The nonprofits' client needs are even greater, and there is less money from traditional resources to support these people. So there's a still greater need to go to the [public] to say, 'Can you help us?'"

Caritas of Austin serves Travis County's homeless, working poor and documented refugee population.

Executive Director Jo Kathryn Quinn said a lack of affordable housing and using payday loans to cover expenses were two issues facing Southwest Austin residents.

"What the general public doesn't understand is that out of the entire homeless population nationwide, only 20 percent are the folks on the sides of the road—the single, unaccompanied homeless," she said. "The rest of the homeless population? Eighty percent are households with children."

'A hand up, not a handout'

Donations to Capital Area Food Bank make their way to local partner organizations throughout 21 counties.

One partner in Southwest Austin is El Buen Samaritano, a nonprofit and outreach mission of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas.

Three days a week, El Buen Samaritano operates a food pantry to help those struggling to make ends meet, spokesman Ivan Davila said.

"The food pantry ends up being a gateway to the rest of our services," he said.

El Buen Samaritano offers workforce training and classes—ESL, computer classes and GED preparation—and partners with health care providers to offer some services at a reduced price.

Some people who use the services work low-paying jobs or just lost their jobs, he said. They may have high medical bills or be homeless.

"Our approach is to offer a hand up, not a handout, and provide the tools to achieve success and lead healthy, productive, secure lives," he said.

Nonprofits are skilled at leveraging donations. John Turner, Capital Area Food Bank spokesman, said the organization gets food donations from area supermarkets and enlists volunteers to sort residents' contributions.

Turner noted that every dollar donated generates $5 worth of food for two nutritious meals.

Frost said that $25 can buy a day's rent at an efficiency apartment, and $50 can buy 10 grocery gift cards for a homeless person.

I Live Here, I Give Here encourages residents to consider monthly giving or volunteering their time.

"When you volunteer, you are more invested in the organization and supporting the lives of the group's clients," Frost said.

Caritas trains dedicated volunteers to be community advocates who mentor households.

"They work with that family through those issues until the point of self-sufficiency," Quinn said.

One client's story

A lady in a purple Cayman Islands hat and sandals sits in the lobby of El Buen Samaritano.

She lives nearby and has been here before, both as a client and volunteer at the food pantry.

She is retired and lives off of Social Security and a small stipend from her ex-husband's old job.

She said she had been depressed recently due to family issues. She returned to the food pantry about a month ago.

El Buen Samaritano is different, she said; it offers fresh fruits and vegetables. She can browse the shelves and pick out potatoes, carrots, rice and beans, and canned foods. She said she likes to make spaghetti and meatballs.

"I may make that tonight, because I got the whole-wheat pasta from here," she said with a smile.