OUTLOOK 2021: More demand, fewer resources

Eric Poole, The Herald, Sharon, Pa.
·4 min read

Feb. 27—For community organizations, 2020 posed a daunting set of challenges — just as so many people found themselves in need of help, private charitable agencies were starved of resources they needed to help.

Restrictions on large gatherings and requirements for social distancing stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic forced organizations to cancel the fund-raising events that, in previous years, had been their life blood and in turn, the means by which they could help so many.

Casualties of the pandemic included the Strimbu Memorial Fund Bar-B-Que, held annually at Yankee Lake Ballroom and one of the area's signature social events. The Bar-B-Que is also one of the fund's largest revenue sources, attracting 1,500 to 1,800 people for dining, a silent auction, a live auction and musical entertainment.

The 2020 Strimbu Memorial Fund Bar-B-Que, scheduled for May 6, would have been the 31st annual event, but organizers canceled it on March 19.

The O'Brien Children Memorial Fund Clambake, which had been scheduled for Oct. 14 at Yankee Lake Ballroom, was to have been the 40th annual event, but organizers decided in mid-September to cancel it because of the pandemic restrictions in Ohio.

The clambake is the O'Brien Fund's major fundraiser. The initial event generated $54,000 to help establish the Community Fund of Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio, which oversees more than 700 charitable funds that donate more than $6 million annually.

Shenango Valley Animal Shelter's plans for a new, larger shelter took a hit because of the pandemic restrictions, as well. It was unable to hold public events to raise money for construction.

At the same time as agencies were confronted with difficulties raising money, they also faced increasing demand for their services.

Pennsylvania's month-to-month unemployment rate peaked in April at 15.1%, which meant COVID-19 and its restrictions put thousands of state residents out of work, and left them in need of food and revenue to pay expenses like rent.

That increased stress — particularly for food services — on private charities like the Salvation Army and public agencies like the Community Food Warehouse of Mercer County.

Organizations held multiple food distributions, including several by the Community Food Warehouse that attracted people from throughout the county, with people in need lining up as much as four and a half hours before the scheduled no-contact distribution was about to begin.

Where private entities began to feel the strain from being called on to do more with less, the federal government stepped — working through local governments — stepped in to help.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act provided funds to counties and municipalities to help them help people. Mercer County alone received almost $9.9 million. County commissioners distributed most of that money to organizations and businesses.

Mercer County's aid included dispersals to non-profit organizations, as did municipally directed CARES Act funding.

And even within community organizations, there was good news to be found.

The Buhl Regional Health Foundation, deviated from its established routine of awarding grants in twice-a-year rounds of giving. Instead, foundation officials realized there was a need that couldn't wait for the organization's grant process.

Foundation leaders decided to issue emergency grants in early April. Those grants included funding for Community Food Warehouse of Mercer County and Community Foundation of Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio, which received $12,500 each.

Prince of Peace Center, a Catholic social service agency based in Farrell, received $20,000. The Salvation Army posts in Sharon and Greenville received $10,000 and $5,000, respectively.

The Buhl Regional Health Foundation, which named Jennifer Barborak as executive director after the retirement of founding director Mickey Gula, plans to seek grant funding on its own. Barborak gained grant-writing experience while working at UPMC Regional Health Foundation.

And even without its top fundraiser, the Strimbu Memorial Fund continued to carry out its mission. Traditionally, the fund distributes its scholarship awards at the Bar-B-Que, but that wasn't possible this year.

Instead, Strimbu Memorial Fund officials gave out 14 $2,000 scholarships and delivered the $10,000 top scholarship in person to Sharon graduate Justin Stanek. The organization also fulfilled its charitable commitment in December, when it gave out more than $145,000 to 19 entities.

Now, with vaccine dispensations accelerating, an end to the pandemic and to demands for social distancing and bans on large gatherings may be in sight, which could allow organizations to once again hold fundraisers.

And, vaccines willing, the Strimbu Memorial Fund is hoping to bring the Bar-B-Que back this year. On the day they canceled the 2020 event, they scheduled the 2021 Bar-B-Que for May 5.