The Granite State is famously (even proudly) parsimonious. Granted, frugality can be a virtue, but when it comes to charitable giving, New Hampshire's annual donations rank at the bottom of the national charts. With hard economic times in the news, retailers are braced for a lackluster sales year, but couldn't those same hard times be the impetus we need to get Granite Staters to open their hearts and their wallets to some very good causes?
The holidays are called the "season of giving." While the more cynical may think of this sentiment as a slogan for stores selling gifts, those in the state's not-for-profit sector rely on it as a fact of existence. Charity-minded people like to complete their annual giving before the tax year ends, so while parking lots fill up with shoppers, cash-strapped groups serving hundreds of causes eagerly await a last-minute binge of generosity.
But with so many worthy organizations, how to decide where to give? For many it takes an emotional bond to inspire faithful giving. Usually the connection comes unbidden, through a disease or a disaster. Once your home burns, you have a special sympathy for a family whose possessions go up in smoke. But there are charities that would appeal to just about anyone and offer services that would touch the most Grinch-like of hearts. Here in the season of giving, why not look around and see if you can find a connection that starts with the heart, and then connects with the head by doing good and doing it well (with a touch of Yankee thrift to boot).
While wrapping Christmas gifts you want to make sure they FIT. That's a handy mnemonic for one agency offering "wrap around services" that helps families in need find temporary homes and more. "Typically people who are homeless have issues like trauma or domestic violence or substance abuse or other issues of physical or mental health," says Robin Abbott, community relations director for Families In Transition (FIT), a not-for-profit that provides 139 units of housing for needy families in nine residential buildings in Manchester and Concord. Along with housing come clothing, food, household needs like plates and utensils, and medical and therapeutic services.
Abbott has been with the agency for a year in which some 5,000 people benefited from one or more of the many services that FIT offers and has offered for the past 17 years. The latest building to be added to the FIT inventory is Family Willows on Manchester's Beech Street, where 39 residential units share the same building with the agency's second thrift store, supplementing the low-budget retail services provided at its thrift store on Second Street. Seven of the nine FIT residential buildings are in Manchester, while the other two are in Concord, where real and serious human needs are being met in the capital of the state with one of the highest per capita incomes in America.
Abbott and FIT President Maureen Beauregard note that the money that comes to the agency from a variety of sources, including grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and individual and corporate contributions, brings results not just in temporary assistance, but in permanently changed lives.
"We are very proud to have a 90 percent success rate," says Abbott. "When people go through our program, they are able to find permanent housing for themselves and their families at this transition point in their lives. And they're very thankful for all our help. We have people coming back and saying, 'What can we do to help?'"
Another agency that strives to be comprehensive in the range of services it provides is the New Hampshire chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The holiday season is notorious for the stress and strains placed on the psyche of even the most stable of people, but it can especially wreak havoc on the mentally ill, says Mike Cohen, executive director of NAMI-NH.
"This is a population that is vulnerable no matter what time of year it is," Cohen says. "At the holiday time, we try to raise the consciousness of folks about mental illness and how to meet the critical needs of this population." The season exacerbates tensions, especially when widespread economic difficulties are affecting people's lives. "It's stressful for everyone and it's even more stressful on poor people," says Cohen. "And people with mental illness are poor."
That's because mental illness has the capacity to leave even the smartest, most talented people essentially dysfunctional, he says. It also leaves them effectively isolated from people who care about them, families and friends who want most to help. Much of the mission of NAMI-NH is educating families on how they can help a loved one cope with and eventually recover from mental illness.
"We provide services to families that service providers don't provide," says Cohen, who says his agency serves somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 New Hampshire residents each year. It is also providing New Hampshire National Guard members with education about mental illness and training in suicide prevention, Cohen says.
It often surprises people to learn that mental illness is curable, more curable than illnesses like coronary artery failures, Cohen says. Access to treatment and medication is vital and not all patients are covered by health insurance. Educating and assisting family members also takes time and money. It may not be the "season to be jolly" for all of New Hampshire's citizens, but it is still a season of caring and giving.
"I guess, from my point of view, we would try to help people understand that when times are difficult, giving a little is better than giving nothing. Even if you can't give at the level you've given in the past, try to give something. Organizations like ours hope people will still open up their pockets." We all benefit when we do, he says.
"It's good for New Hampshire," says Cohen. "If we lift up those who are in need and at the bottom, it lifts up everybody."
Much of the holiday season is about memories and for those who are losing their memories the journey through life is a frightening experience. Daybreak, an adult day program run by Easter Seals of New Hampshire, is aimed at helping senior citizens strengthen and retain their cognitive skills through a variety of intellectual and recreational activities.
"They are specifically geared to keep people's mental acuity as high as possible," says Arlene Kershaw, director of senior services. Word games and other intellectual stimuli are helpful as are the surroundings at the Easter Seals facility on Auburn Street in Manchester, where a wide range of services are provided for young and old and those in between.
"We've been very successful in attracting men and women" to the Daybreak program, she says. "And because it's in a building housing many of the services we provide for children with disabilities, it's intergenerational. It's very stimulating." Easter Seals also has support services for family members wishing to help senior citizens in the early stages of Alzheimer's. There are also in-home services provided for those who cannot come to the center.
"We do take care of people who have needs, from birth to death," says Kershaw.
Like a canopy over the heads of people caught in a storm, United Way of New Hampshire helps meet the demands of people dependent on literally thousands of not-for- profit agencies throughout the Granite State.
"At last count, there were 7,800 non-profits in New Hampshire," says Patrick Tufts, president of Heritage United Way, which covers New Hampshire from the Massachusetts border to Hooksett, and from Raymond west to New Boston. They help people struggling to obtain life's basic necessities, from food and shelter to money to pay for heating fuel as another winter approaches. The United Way has been and continues to be innovative in helping people find solutions to those basic problems. One example is a recent program called 211 that will enable people to dial one three-digit number to learn about the wide variety of agencies and services ready to help them. It is a joint effort of United Way and Public Service of New Hampshire. "We have 50 to 60 non-profit agency partners," Tufts says. "Then we branch out from there to literally hundreds and hundreds of programs, from soup kitchens to St. Vincent DePaul and a large number of church groups."
Along with government and corporate grants, a regular flow of small donations is the life blood of non-profit groups. But sometimes a generous donation is what it takes just to bring a non-profit group into existence. That's the case with one Pembroke-area couple. Their son served in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"We were blessed with his return and by the good graces of the Lord and the military, he came back in one piece," says the mother. "He was just an ordinary soldier, the guy hanging off the top of the Humvee," she notes. Still, the family is of sufficient means that they sit down each year with the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation to get assistance in planning their annual giving. When the foundation mentioned a plan for a new charity to assist military families they were impressed. They ran the concept by their son to get his impressions and he agreed that the wide range of services that the program would offer were needed, since veterans are vulnerable to homelessness, substance abuse, divorce, unemployment and poverty. "It appealed to both our hearts and our heads," says the mother. "It's for soldiers and families in active duty or not in active duty. It allows them to get the help they need without a lot of government red tape."
They funded the pilot program "Veterans Count" with $45,000 in contributions in both 2007 and 2008 in a collaborative launch with Easter Seals. Since then they've attracted $1 million in federal Dept. of Defense assistance to the state, and the early success of the Veterans Count program is being watched closely for duplication nationwide.
In this and in all their giving, the couple chooses to remain anonymous. They figure that helping others out shouldn't be a big deal. "That's what we're here for," they say.
But what about people who can't donate $100,000 over a couple of years? Do ordinary families think about charitable organizations when they are running about, checking off their gift lists with everything from jewelry and jumping toys to stereos and flat screen TVs to Teddy Bears and tiny reindeer for husbands and wives, children, nieces and nephews?
"Sure," says Deborah Schachter, senior program officer for the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. Causes from environmentalism to child welfare compete for the heartstrings and the purse strings of a mostly fortunate and generous society. "I think as a new year approaches, people start thinking about charitable giving because that matters to them. Some people have favorite organizations that they give to every year and others look for new ones in their areas of interest." Children, she says, tend to be high on nearly everyone's list.
"People look in the eyes of their own kids and grandchildren and realize others may not be as fortunate," says Schachter. "Lots of organizations reach out this time of year."
And thankfully, she notes, lots of people are standing by to offer a hand. NH
This article appears in the December 2009 issue of New Hampshire Magazine