Helping those who help: Area entities hit hard by dwindling funds, donations

by Jo Anne Embleton
Murray Smith, director of Rusk’s Good Samaritan Food Pantry, helps stock donations for future use. According to Good Samaritan officials, the impact of a national pandemic has hit organizations like them hard.

Photo by Jo Anne Embleton Murray Smith, director of Rusk’s Good Samaritan Food Pantry, helps stock donations for future use. According to Good Samaritan officials, the impact of a national pandemic has hit organizations like them hard. Photo by Jo Anne Embleton

CHEROKEE COUNTY – Area entities established to help those in need are now needing help themselves, as donations have dwindled due to an economy impacted by a national pandemic.

“It’s put a strain on all food pantries,” said Mona Burford, president of The Good Samaritan Food Pantry and Thrift Shop in Rusk. “With people out of work, we don’t close our doors – if they need food, we give it to them. All pantries are doing that.”

But, she added, “it’s never been to this point before.”

“The lowest our funds have ever gotten was $15,000 to $20,000, but now we’re just trying to keep up with purchasing food. I hope we can be sustainable for a while, but right now, we’re hurting,” Burford said, as her counterparts at Highway 69 Mission and The Clothes Closet and More in Jacksonville echoed her concern.

“We continue to help with food, clothing, shelter and some financial help,” said Billy Bateman, who runs Highway 69 Mission, but increased need and smaller donations are crippling the mission’s ability to keep assisting a growing number of people.

“Before the pandemic, we probably averaged about 20 people a week; since the pandemic was announced in March, to now, there’s been a 100% increase in people needing our services,” he said.

COVID-19 and its fall-out are “affecting everyone – rich and poor; people are getting laid off or their working hours have been cut back; some businesses are shutting down, or people are dealing with only one income, where there were once two,” Bateman added. “I think the next three to four months, (the need) will continue to rise.”

Meanwhile, Clothes Closet Director Mickey Gear said the pandemic’s impact has not only meant fewer donations, but fewer grant funds.

“Some of our grant sources have either cut back or declined applications for this year, because they’re not getting donations either,” she said, noting this also includes the local United Fund of Cherokee County.

“We were getting $1,000 per quarter, but now we’re getting $600 quarterly, and we’ve been trying to work with it. But they aren’t to blame, they simply have not gotten pledges,” Gear said, adding that people are dealing with how the pandemic has impacted their own finances.

Meanwhile, “several grants we’ve applied for have written back saying that due to the change in the economic situation, they’re not taking new applications, but are trying to sustain the ones they have already committed to,” Gear said. “I’m hoping that one of them will approve us for the next year, because our budget is about 55% dependent on grants.”

However, some local donors are saving the day with contributions of nonperishable food items to flesh out their pantries.

Brookshire Brothers is donating brown bag meals purchased by customers, while a number of people have contributed to canned food drives for the Rusk pantry, Burford said.

The recent Hilltop Jamboree netted the Good Samaritan seven boxes of food, while Rusk High School’s ag class collected 5,000 items during the month of September for the local pantry.

“That’ll maybe get us through the end of the year with our weekly distributions,” she said.

In October, the Rusk entity distributed 467 boxes of food. In January, that number will be greatly reduced when only one box of food will be given to each household; in December, the Good Samaritan will be limiting distribution to clients who reside within the Rusk ISD boundary to better focus on local needs.

“And, we’re not doing an extra food box this year, the holiday box, because we just aren’t able. Instead, the ones we distribute on Dec. 16 will be packed suitably for holiday meal,” Burford said.

Bateman is faced with additional concerns of being able to keep the ministry going due to reduced sales at the local trading post, whose proceeds partially fund Highway 69 Mission.

“My resale shop is off 50 percent, compared to last year – the mission needs rent, water, electric, phone and trash pick up monthly, at a cost of approximately $1,200 a month just to open the doors, and most months we barely make it,” he admitted. “I have had to beg or borrow sometimes to keep it open … it gets discouraging many times.”

Gear described it as “a growing need, with dwindling resources.”

“I think people who are a little better off are more aware of the needs of nonprofits who help people who are struggling – we’ve had a real surge in that area. And a real surge in homelessness, which puts strain on our budget,” she said, describing how The Clothes Closet tries to keep readily available sleeping bags, backpacks, toiletries and pop top containers of food, while increasing the number of sandwiches distributed as part of a weekend ministry. “We’re now distributing about 65 (sack lunches) per day Friday and Saturday.”

Response to a letter campaign benefitting the Good Samaritan has yielded a 25 percent response, but Burford has his on the idea of asking people to set up Facebook fundraisers for their birthday.

“I did that for my birthday, naming the Good Samaritan as my charity, and raised $560 through my personal Facebook page,” she said. “There are creative ways to draw cash in.”

While there is “always a need for financial help, for food, we need to keep praying and offer a helping hand,” Bateman added. “We can and will beat this, but it takes us all working together.

To learn more about how to help, contact Billy Bateman at Highway 69 Ministry, 903-284-1710; Mona Burford of Rusk Cares/Good Samaritan, at 512-529-1221, or email; and Mickey Gear at the Clothes Closet and More, 903-284-8044.