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Charity holds steady in Red Wing, but need continues to climb

Charitable giving in Red Wing has held steady over the past year despite the continued recession, according to a number of local charitable groups and non-profits. But the bad news, charity organizers say, is that while giving has hung tough in 2009 the need for help is growing.

Red Wing Area Food Shelf volunteer Mary Felmlee says the community has given generously to the food shelf. In fact, as of two weeks before Christmas the food shelf had received 43,477 pounds of food.

"We just wish less people had to use it," Felmlee said.

She and others familiar with the food shelf say the number of people needing the service has spiked this year and for many it's the first time they've found themselves needing to rely on a food shelf.

"They wouldn't be here unless they had to be," Felmlee said.

Some groups say the hit came in 2008, after the economy tanked, but in the last year donations have at least held the line.

United Way of Goodhue, Wabasha & Pierce Counties has a similar story. Executive Director Meg Walch said the organization -- which helps fund numerous community programs - took in $8,000 less from donations and fundraising efforts in 2008 than the $553,000 it received in 2007.

"I think it was shocking for people," Walch said of the economic downturn, noting the drop off in donations from 2007 to 2008.

But in the past year community members have seen that others are struggling, Walch said, and they've responded generously.

"For the first time they know multiple people that are impacted. They know someone who has lost their job or has been impacted in some way," Walch said adding, "Red Wing has always stepped up to the plate when there's been hard times."

Walch said she figures the United Way will receive the about same amount of revenue from donations and fundraising efforts this year that it took in last year.

But for some groups donations have continued to dip, as requests for help continue to climb.

"We're seeing a dramatic increase in the need for services," said Emily Nelson, interim president of the HOPE Coalition, a local non-profit that helps families struggling with poverty and domestic violence.

While the organization has maintained roughly the same number of overall donors, those donors can't afford to give as much as they once did, Nelson said.

Cash donations are down 5 percent in 2009 compared to 2008, but requests for help have jumped by nearly a third.

"It's been a real struggle for us," Nelson said, adding many people are looking to the coalition's Community Care Program, which helps families on the verge of losing their home or having their utilities shut off.

Nelson said that some people who can't afford to give money to HOPE Coalition are giving their used clothing and household items to support the organization.

There have been, however, a few instances in 2009 where groups have seen their donations increase dramatically.

For example the Goodhue County Christmas Project this year has been able to help 338 families, 51 more than it did last year. The program provides Christmas presents to low-income families, who would otherwise struggle to buy gifts.

"There's a steady increase in need, but we've always found enough people to help," Coordinator Doris Geary said.

Likewise the Red Wing YMCA has had a banner year raising money for its Strong Kids Campaign, doubling last year's total. The donations fund scholarships for people who can't afford a YMCA membership, allowing them to use the recreational facility.

In a general sense the local trends seem to follow a similar course to what's happening across the state and the nation. For instance charitable giving was down 2 percent nationally in 2008, according Giving USA Foundation's annual report.

But while giving is down in general, it hasn't dropped as much as some economic indicators might suggest it would, said University of Minnesota Psychology professor Mark Snyder, who studies charitable giving.

He said donations to charities that help people with their basic needs, such as church groups and the United Way, have actually gone up in some instances, but giving to the arts has taken a hit.

That trend may not hold true at the local level, however. Friends of the Sheldon recently gave $55,000 to the Sheldon Theatre.

And Dan Guida, Red Wing Arts Association executive director, said his group has not seen a dramatic decline in donations this year.

Snyder said there could be some cause for hope that charities will see an upturn in 2010.

"With the economy showing signs of recovery (especially in the stock market), there may be increases in giving fueled by a sense of growing wealth on the part of some donors, as well as the sense that there are many sectors of society where recovery has yet to happen and thereby need continues to be great," Snyder said in an e-mail to the R-E.

Numerous local charity coordinators say they too are hopeful that giving goes up next year and even more so that the need for help goes down. They also say they're thankful to those who have given.

"We are very blessed we live here because people are caring," said Felmlee, who added that without local generosity things would be worse. "I don't know what some people would do."