Terrorism War Poses Risk for Island Charities


As American spending habits are tempered this fall by a soft economy and the recent outpouring of generosity to new national causes, leaders of Island charities and nonprofit organizations cross their fingers that donors will continue to reach deep into their pockets to provide for the ongoing needs of the Vineyard community.

Early indicators are mixed. While proceeds from October's annual Crop Walk to benefit local and world hunger fell 20 per cent, none of the Island's major philanthropic organizations report having felt a real pinch otherwise. In fact, earlier this month Harley-Davidson riders raised a record $19,000 for the Red Stocking Fund, which provides gifts and food for about 250 Island children each holiday season.

And hunger relief jars throughout Edgartown have been as full as ever, said Tom Hiller of the Island Food Pantry.

Still, he said, "We're not overly confident this year."

Ned Robinson-Lynch, director of Martha's Vineyard Community Services, has concerns as well. "I am anxious, despite the real commitment [of] the community," he said.

Adding to Mr. Robinson-Lynch's worries are pending state budget cuts, which are expected to reduce funding for human services throughout the state. MVCS could see its allocation reduced by as much as $100,000, he said.

The Island's chapter of the American Red Cross campaigned aggressively to raise $121,000 for Sept. 11 disaster relief. Now it must raise money to support its $30,000 to $40,000 annual budget.

"We are wondering if people are tapped out," said local director Glenn Carpenter.

Accounts of peer organizations in other communities struggling to meet day-to-day needs only raise more concerns among leaders of local nonprofits.

Many local boys' and girls' clubs, for example, rely heavily on gifts from the United Way, which stepped to the forefront of national relief efforts on Sept. 11. Now chapters fear United Way contributions will decrease significantly this year.

Greg Rollins, director of the Martha's Vineyard Boys' and Girls' Club has attended state and national organizational conferences that address the challenge of supporting children whose parents face the holidays jobless and hopeless. The economic forecast is grim, he said.

Mr. Rollins said he nonetheless feels somewhat insulated from the downturn felt across the nation.

"We've thought about it, but we have not seen any indication that we will be hurting," he said. "It's so staggering to see how many help-wanted signs are in our community. If there's a poor economic climate, I haven't seen it yet."

The Island's unique economic status - the community hosts both millionaires and those who live paycheck to paycheck - may be protecting Island charities.

"The Island is different; it has a lot of heavy hitters," said Mr. Hiller of the Food Pantry. "They feel responsible toward those people here who are not as affluent."

"We have large donors who are probably insulated from recent falls," he added. "Their giving to Sept. 11 was in addition to what they normally give. It's the people who give $50 to $100 a year - that's the donor that we may miss this year."

Only time will tell if the season of giving will allow these organizations to fulfill budgetary wish lists. The boys' and girls' club just sent out its annual plea for donations, and Martha's Vineyard Community Services and the Red Cross are both preparing mass mailings.

"If we have this conversation three months from now, I might have a completely different answer," said Mr. Rollins of the boys' and girls' club.

For now, the groups cautiously predict they will be able to make ends meet this year.

"I think the people on the Island know the local chapter bent over backward to rally behind a national cause, and I think there will be a residual benefit for the local chapter," the Red Cross's Mr. Carpenter said.

But new needs arise constantly. The boys' and girls' club, for instance, continues to add new programs, like a summer day camp at the charter school; some of them operate at a loss.

"If all goes according to plan, we'll get by. But as we continue to do more things, we'll never be able to be complacent," Mr. Rollins said.

"It's striking how the difficulty of living here seems to have risen. It's more than I've seen in my 12 short years," Mr. Robinson-Lynch said. MVCS continually works to meet the needs of a growing clientele with limited funds, staff and space.

Mr. Hiller, too, worries about keeping 700 Islanders fed through the entire winter season.

"We're able to keep the shelves stocked now, but come February and March, when families are in greatest need, they tend to get a little bare," he said.

Nonprofit leaders remain thankful that Islanders have compensated for unexpected needs time and time again.

"This community has consistently stepped up to the plate," Mr. Robinson-Lynch said.

"Even when someone's in need, they still manage to share $5 or $10," said Barbara Sylvia, treasurer for the Red Stocking Fund.

"If for some unforeseen reason we go over, all we need to do is mention it, and the community will make sure it's wiped away," she said. "It's all about taking care of your own; that's what this community is all about."

Despite the uncertainties brought on by unexpected challenges, the commitment of Island philanthropic organizations doesn't waver.

"We will continue to provide services against the backdrop of a recession," Mr. Robinson-Lynch said. "We're still fulfilling a unique need that Sept. 11 did not create or eliminate."