Tireless Sarasota-Manatee caseworkers are key to Season of Sharing

Rick DiGiorgio, retiring from Step Up Suncoast, is one of many tireless caseworkers and managers in the region who are key to Season of Sharing.
Rick DiGiorgio, retiring from Step Up Suncoast, is one of many tireless caseworkers and managers in the region who are key to Season of Sharing.

On a recent December morning, Rick DiGiorgio, housing counselor manager at Step Up Suncoast, stopped what he was doing at his desk to answer a call.

“Good morning, Mr. Rick,” a woman said cheerfully, greeting him through the phone and inquiring about her certificate of completion for a recent first-time homebuyer course.

DiGiorgio let her know it was already in the mail, heading her way.

“When I say I’m going to do something, I do it,” he assured her good-naturedly.

The two then discussed assistance for her search for a second job.

“Thank you so much, Mr. Rick!” she said before hanging up.

Minutes later, before DiGiorgio could resume his thoughts, the phone rang again.

“Hi, sir,” a man began, “I’m calling to see if you have any help with rentals?”

After DiGiorgio described how to make an appointment with an agency counselor regarding rent assistance – one of a ballooning number of cases amid skyrocketing rents – the man was effusive with gratitude.

“Thank you, sir. God bless you,” he said before ending the call.

“This is daily what I’m getting,” DiGiorgio said, at last turning away from the phone.

For twenty-four years DiGiorgio has juggled many duties as a HUD-certified counselor at Step Up Suncoast.

One of them has included processing applications for Season of Sharing – assisting countless families and individuals in crisis with rent, mortgage payments, utility bills, child care and transportation aid.

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But as 2021 was coming to a close, DiGiorgio, 70, was planning to hang up his hat and retire.

The same is true for another long-term case manager and critical source of support for thousands of families through the years – Sister Ann DeNicolo, director of prevention support services in Arcadia for the Diocese of Venice’s Catholic Charities program. DeNicolo also retired at the end of 2021 – following 21 years at the post.

The simultaneous departure of two highly regarded advocates for area families – occurring amid a pandemic and a worsening crisis of affordable housing – puts a spotlight on a key component of Season of Sharing: the tireless work of caseworkers and managers.

Every year, during the Community Foundation of Sarasota’s annual Season of Sharing campaign, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune runs stories on the families whose lives have been greatly impacted by the help received year-round from the fund.

Behind every single one of those stories is another one that goes untold – about the devotion of caseworkers.

Laboring long hours at more than 50 social service agencies, they are the linchpin in Season of Sharing as they guide struggling families and individuals through one of the most painful times of their lives. When lost work hours, illness or car repairs send many on a downward financial spiral, falling behind on bills and facing homelessness, caseworkers steer them to available resources.

And they do so with dignity and respect – a crucial piece that families repeat often when telling their stories, never forgetting the reassurance they got when, embarrassed and humbled, they had to reach out for help.

Case managers are the “lifeline” to services in the community, said Chris Russi, community fiscal agent and liaison with The Glasser-Schoenbaum Human Services Center.

“As frontline warriors standing up for their clients and their needs, without them this very important work would not be possible,” she said.

And with all they’ve seen in the area through the decades – especially this past year – both DiGiorgio and DeNicolo have some thoughts on the future, a bit of forecasting to share on their way out the door.

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Having an impact on the future

Originally from Philadelphia, DiGiorgio was 24 in the mid-1970s and working at an AMVETS club in Clarksville, Tennessee, when he lost his leg in a car accident.

In the hospital, a doctor trying to encourage him brought in a man who was an amputee.

“I’m still the same person,” DiGiorgio recalled the man telling him. “It’s a mental challenge, and you have to accept it.”

DiGiorgio never forgot that.

A little while later, an aunt invited him to Florida to live with her and her family.

Soon after, DiGiorgio got a job in maintenance at a local community center and within a year worked up to assistant director and then director.

It would be a pattern he would repeat -- starting jobs on the bottom rung and quickly progressing to the top.

“I always pushed myself to the maximum of what I could do,” he said.

The same would be true once he started with the agency that would later become Step Up Suncoast. Beginning as a counselor, in a few years he worked into the management position he’d hold until retirement.

Along the way he helped countless people from Manatee, Sarasota, DeSoto and Hardee counties.

Once, after he broke his wrist getting out of his wheelchair ahead of a first-time homeowner training class, his bosses told him to rest. He didn’t need to attend. But he pushed ahead with the course, knowing that afterward, participants were eligible for assistance with down payments and closing costs.

“These people need it,” he said.

Through the years, whether it was with homebuyer courses, credit and budget counseling, applications for Season of Sharing, or all of the above, DiGiorgio combined compassion with straight talk.

“You have to build trust with these clients and earn their respect,” he said.

When arguments broke out between married couples over finances – one partner hiding mail or overdue bills from the other out of embarrassment – he found himself needing to intervene.

“I almost have to be a marriage counselor sometimes,” he said, “and keep a box of Kleenex on my desk.”

He taught bargain-shopping tips and gave plenty of pep talks.

He shared charts, graphics and worksheets, helping families plan budgets. 10% of income to savings. No more than 31% on housing.

But he also saw how – amid skyrocketing rent, housing, child care, fuel and food costs – the best intentions only went so far.

Increasingly, many working families were living paycheck to paycheck, half of their income poured into housing alone.

“Rent is just getting ridiculous,” he said.

When assisting clients in applications to Season of Sharing, DiGiorgio tapped into other established relationships – those he’d built up at water departments, and with government-supported housing and local landlords.

In the years ahead, DiGiorgio anticipates another housing crash.

“We’re looking at another downhill spiral like we saw in 2009,” he predicted.

Clients are calling, panicked, their mortgage deferments during the pandemic now expired. Some owe between $8,000 and $30,000 in back payments. Without another re-modification plan like those approved after the Great Recession, he fears many families will soon be facing foreclosure.

He’s also concerned that some who want to join the Step Up homebuying courses that he’s taught simply can’t afford it.

“This market has put first-time homeowners out of the market,” he said.

But the ones in the toughest spot, he added, are those on fixed or disability incomes. With the dire shortage of affordable housing, rising rents and years-long waiting lists for Section 8 units, many of them are “in a world of hurt.”

“It’s gotten much harder trying to help people,” he said.

The last year and a half through the pandemic has been especially tough – scrambling to assist so many in need, working seven days a week, much of it from home.

“It took a toll, but I enjoy trying to help people,” he said. “Now I’m going to enjoy me.”

He’s looking forward to throwing himself full time into his hobby – woodworking – carving and decorating beautiful wood bowls, pens, bottle-stoppers and centerpieces. Some of his handiwork currently decorates the home he shares with his wife. Soon he’ll start selling pieces online.

His impact, like that made by Sister Ann DeNicolo, says Russi of The Glasser-Schoenbaum center, will be felt far into the future, long after he’s gone.

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Sister Ann DeNicolo
Sister Ann DeNicolo

Advocating for the community to do better

Sister Ann DeNicolo steered her sedan down narrow residential streets of Arcadia.

On either side of the street, a few scruffy lots were dotted with dilapidated trailers, some with shattered windows.

There was a time, back when DeNicolo arrived at her post here 21 years ago, that these types of trailers dominated the available housing for farmworkers.

DeNicolo was in shock when she first saw them: trailers with no AC, unfit for humans packed with a half dozen men, each of them paying up to $40 a week to sleep there.

“I never thought in the United States there would be such poverty. Not just poverty – it was negligence,” she said.

Growers, crew leaders and the larger community could do better for the people who harvested the area's crops, she believed.

DeNicolo was one of the first advocates for reform. She and other activists got an unlikely assist from Hurricane Charley.

The destructive storm that swept through the region in 2004, damaging homes, hospitals and businesses, also wiped out many of the rundown trailers. Fortunately, DeNicolo noted, they were not occupied at the time.

And amid the destruction was opportunity.

Federal relief funds flowed to DeSoto County, contributing to Catholic Charities’ development of stable farmworker housing at Casa San Juan Bosco.

As DeNicolo’s car approached Casa in December, a green carpet of landscaped yards unfurled underneath the spread of charming, single-family homes – almost 100 three- and four-bedroom houses for families at affordable rents.

Between them were playgrounds, a community garden, soccer fields and community centers.

After Charley, help arrived another way – through Season of Sharing.

Since then, countless local families and individuals of all backgrounds have received assistance from the fund every year.

Many people assume that Catholic Charities only aids farmworkers and the Latino community, she said. But they make up only a third of clients. Black and white non-Latino Americans make up the rest – a third each.

“We don’t turn anyone away,” she said.

DeNicolo has built close relationships with everyone: farmworkers and ranchers; retirees and landlords; clients and donors – the latter she considers partners in the ministry.

“I want you to come in, sit down and talk with me,” she’s told contributors. “I don’t want you just to drop off a check.”

A former teacher and part of an order of nuns called Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, she came to the area from a post in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. There she had worked in a women’s shelter.

She long had wanted to be a missionary – having studied Spanish in college along with elementary education, inspired by a documentary on the deplorable conditions in which farmworkers toil.

Arcadia seemed like a perfect fit.

Through the years, in addition to helping families through Season of Sharing, she has arranged transportation during medical crises. She has counseled people on household budgets and credit. She has intervened with utility workers to get power or water turned back on, and with landlords to cut breaks on late fees.

“Sometimes it’s just listening,” she said.

Behind her short stature and soft-spoken voice, she is a force of nature and fierce advocate, tapping into a robust list of community contacts to help provide wraparound services.

“I strongly believe that when people come to us, they are in greater need than what they’ve been telling us,” she said.

She has seen a rise in families pushed out of expensive housing markets along the coast. They move to DeSoto – only to face long work commutes, costly car repairs and high prices at the gas pumps. Even though rents are relatively lower in DeSoto, utility bills are exorbitant, due to older homes and ancient clay pipes. A slight mishap – missed work from an illness, an unexpected car repair – easily sets many people back.

“If it weren’t for Season of Sharing, we wouldn’t be able to help as many families,” she said.

She is impressed at economic gains made in the area and programs to reach teens about college. But one of the biggest remaining challenges, she said, is the need for better-paying jobs along with education and training to go with them.

“If you’re going to break the cycle of poverty, you’ve got to help with jobs so that people are not just living paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “There’s not enough professional training.”

Without a diversity of career options and the resources to help people reach for them, too many in the area will remain trapped in a cycle of poverty, she predicted. The community can do more to invest in future generations.

“That’s what’s hard,” she said, “building leaders here, because they don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

As she heads into retirement and the next chapter of her life, she leaves behind a long legacy of care.

“I just love working with people – helping enable people to be who they could be,” she said. “That’s the most important thing.”

How to help

Season of Sharing was created 21 years ago as a partnership between the Herald-Tribune and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County to get emergency funds to individuals and families on the brink of homelessness in Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte and DeSoto counties. There are no administrative fees and no red tape – every dollar donated goes to families in need to help with rental assistance, utility bills, child care and other expenses.

Donations to Season of Sharing may be made online at cfsarasota.org/donors/support-season-of-sharing, or by sending a check (payable to the Community Foundation of Sarasota County) to Attn. Season of Sharing, 2635 Fruitville Road, Sarasota, FL 34237. Contact the foundation at 941-955-3000 for more information or to request a credit card form. All donations are tax-deductible.

This story comes from a partnership between the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. Saundra Amrhein covers the Season of Sharing campaign, along with issues surrounding housing, utilities, child care and transportation in the area. She can be reached at samrhein@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Tireless Sarasota-Manatee caseworkers are key to Season of Sharing