State - INACTIVE

Valley United Way donations fall

Nearly three years into the Great Recession, the hungry times are not over.

Second Harvest Food Bank said demand for food in Stanislaus County spiked 25 percent to 30 percent in the past year.

"People who were donating last year are now receiving food," said Mike Mallory, chief executive officer of the Manteca food bank, which serves Stanislaus, San Joaquin and five foothills counties.

"It's your neighbors who have lost their jobs," he said. "It's families losing their homes, losing their jobs. It's everyone you least expect. That's who is the face of hunger."

There was more evidence of the economic downturn Wednesday when the United Way of Stanislaus announced the results of this year's fund-raising campaign. The nonprofit raised $1,976,453, the lowest amount in at least a decade.

The money is raised primarily through the United Way's workplace campaign, in which companies and their employees are asked to give.

But that's been harder in recent years with the closure of such employers as Mervyn's, Gottschalks and the Hershey factory in Oakdale. A stubbornly high unemployment rate approaching 20 percent has not helped.

The United Way announced its 2009-10 fund-raising results during a luncheon to honor its volunteers. Many representatives from the United Way's more than two dozen partner agencies, such as Second Harvest, were at the event.

United Way officials were grateful for the money donated and the hard work of their volunteers.

"Amidst record-breaking unemployment figures and a downturn in the economy, donors dug deep into their pockets and looked beyond their own economic challenges to give to others," United Way board chairman Leonard Jalli said to the luncheon audience at the Martin G. Petersen Event Center in downtown Modesto.

The money United Way raises goes to nonprofits that help battered women, teach adults how to read, feed the hungry, help the dying and teach abusive parents how to become loving caregivers to their children.

Nonprofits have sliced jobs, not filled vacant positions and cut their expenses to the bone to survive, while demand for their services continues to grow amid the recession.

For example, the Parent Resource Center of Modesto has laid off workers and eliminated and consolidated classes to make ends meet as its funding has been slashed.

Before the recession, the center seldom had a waiting list. Now, parents and caregivers can wait four to 12 weeks for services, Executive Director Leah Silvestre said.

The center -- which is one of the United Way's partner agencies -- is a child-abuse prevention agency and provides parenting education classes and case management for parents and caregivers. Last year, it helped 750 parents and caregivers and more than 1,500 children.

"The demand for services is higher than ever," said Silvestre, explaining that child abuse and the risk of child abuse rise when the economy tanks. "When a parent walks in, we have a waiting list into August."

But there are reasons for hope.

Mallory, with Second Harvest, said he's hearing from food banks and churches that more of the people they help with food are feeling optimistic, that perhaps the worst is behind us.

He also thinks that after three years of double-digit increases in the demand for food, demand may have hit a plateau. "I think the worst-case scenario is we stay the same," he said.

Still, Second Harvest struggles to meet the increase in demand. Food donations have not kept pace, forcing the nonprofit to spend precious dollars to fill the gap, Mallory said.

The United Way added 15 businesses and organizations in this year's fund-raising campaign to the more than 200 it depends upon for contributions. United Way officials said that's a remarkable achievement given the economic circumstances. Those 15 businesses and organizations brought in $52,000.

"It's hard to predict when the recession will be over, especially for nonprofits, with state and county budget cuts coming," said United Way CEO and President Francine DiCiano. "But we plan to help them raise more money next year. We hope we can increase our campaign and help them meet their needs."

Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at kvaline@modbee.com or 578-2316.

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