Crisis services need help

It's no secret that these are hard times for Catawba County residents.

But what some people may not know is that these are also hard times for the organizations who serve the county's needy residents.

Crisis services at Eastern Catawba Cooperative Christian Ministries increased about 40 percent from this time last year, according to the Rev. Robert Silber, ECCCM executive director. The ministry provided 317 services Monday, which increased from 232 during the same time last year.

In fact, ECCCM closed its doors at 11 a.m. Tuesday and stopped taking service applications because of residents' overwhelming requests for crisis help, like paying their power bills, feeding their families and paying their mortgages.

"We're seeing a lot of hardworking folks who just can't catch a break," Silber said.

As more needy people come to ECCCM's doors, the ministry must be more selective about what services are given out, because times are tough for ECCCM, too.

"This is happening in Catawba County, and it's not getting any better," Silber said. "We're slammed like never before."

Service requests increase at ECCCM as donations to the ministry decrease. Silber and his staff of 14 are serving more people with fewer resources to divide among the needy.

"I really want people to know how dire the situation is," Silber said.

"We've not turned anyone away, but we're not giving at the level I want to give."

At Greater Hickory Cooperative Christian Ministry, the need for services increased 160 percent from last year. Executive director Dr. Roger Baker said that need comes from Catawba County's unemployed.

"The population that we've served has changed," Baker said. "These are formerly folks who were employed who had great benefits. ... The solution to the problem for most of the people that we serve is a job."
Silber agreed.

He said some of ECCCM's clients had nice cars, homes and health insurance before suddenly losing their jobs and discovering they could no longer pay their bills.

"It's just my overall financial situation," said one woman waiting Tuesday in ECCCM's lobby. "It's just everything."

The woman said the cold winter makes it difficult to keep up with heating costs, and because she is on disability, her income is fixed.

Both ministries reported a decrease in donations, which Baker said led GHCCM to look for new and different donors.

"That's pretty much the story," Baker said. "We're having to expand our donor base in order to offset the reduction of the average gift."

ECCCM and GHCCM are also awaiting allocation of Catawba County's Federal Emergency Management Agency Funds, which vary in amount from year to year.

ECCCM closed early every day this week in light of large amounts of service applications.

"I looked in the faces of people (in the ECCCM lobby), and I could not tell them to leave," Silber said.

ECCCM was established as a crisis-services provider for people experiencing temporary need. With the economic downturn, however, ECCCM became, for some clients, a place for constant help.

So, Silber is working to create a crisis assistance development program to help clients understand their need and how to prevent those needs from continuing.

"When you come in with crisis ... we need to rethink what you're doing," Silber said.

That plan could include re-evaluating services like cell phones, cable TV and car payments. It's a proactive, instead of a reactive, approach to crisis support.

But with Catawba County unemployment remaining in double digits, Silber doesn't see the ministry's caseload decreasing any time soon.

"That's what scares me," he said. "It bothers me, for the county's sake."

But there is something county residents can do.

Both ministries requested donations of volunteer hours or money to help the ministries continue serving their clients.

Baker and Silber said they have partnerships with food distributors and other organizations which allow monetary donations to the ministry to go further than if the average citizen purchased items with their own money.

To contact Silber at ECCCM, call (828) 465-1702, and to contact Baker at GHCCM, call (828) 327-0979.