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Helping Hands of Potsdam director Tom Chapell and other volunteers unload a donation of firewood
Helping Hands of Potsdam director Tom Chapell and other volunteers unload a donation of firewood

Volunteers fill gaps left by social service funding cuts

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As local, state and federal governments are looking for ways to do more with less money, demand for aid and services to the poor is increasing.

That's creating some gaps between government-funded organizations' missions and their means.

In St. Lawrence County, volunteer organizations are stepping in to fill some of those gaps--
And as Nora Flaherty reports, they're doing it by being creative--and harnessing local resources.

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When I pull up to Helping Hands of Potsdam’s offices in Hannawa Falls, I’m expecting to see the organization’s director Tom Chapell.

Instead, I see five guys cheerfully offloading a surprise donation—a cord of wood.

Tom Chapell says the wood that’s coming in today will go right back out to people who need it—and since the program is ongoing, more will be available throughout the winter.

And he says he likes that the program makes use of a resource that’s just standing around anyway:

"It’s free in and it's free out, you drive around the North Country and you see trees rotting and going to waste, it’s a shame not to harvest them and give them to people who are needy. Especially when you have people who are shivering."

In Helping Hands’ cozy kitchen-slash-office, Chapell lists some of the ways the organization helps people:

"We’ll do utilities, we’ll do heat, groceries, emergency prescriptions when other sources aren’t available."

Helping hands also provides things like furniture, blankets, TVs, kitchenwares—almost everything except rent assistance. Chapell says Helping Hands is pretty nimble.

"There’s really nothing we can’t do and that’s because we’re predominantly supported by churches and individuals."

Helping Hands also leverages the efforts of other local people who want to help out.

Recently it passed a donated minivan along to a local family:

"The SUNY Canton tech class thoroughly went through it, made sure it was in A1 working condition, and we handed it over to a working family, a family that couldn’t have possibly afforded a beautiful minivan, even one with high mileage."

Helping Hands is organized by a coalition of chuches in Potsdam—but it’s run almost entirely by volunteers. And that’s also true of Community Action Angels in Canton.

Like Helping Hands, it gives people things they need at that moment—whether it’s help buying a mobility scooter or a referral to social services. 

Alicia Murphy is the organization’s volunteer coordinator. She says she’s being strategic about figuring out how Community Action Angels can best serve people. When she started the job, she took an inventory of what local organizations were already providing. And she found one big gap:

"Personal care items kept coming up again, toothpaste, shampoo, dish soap, and especially toilet paper. Toilet paper isn’t covered by food stamps, and a lot of these organizations have seen funding cuts. So they’re putting most of their resources toward food."

So Murphy set up a toilet paper drive—you can drop off TP at the county’s Kinney drugstores or at neighborhood centers. She says she realizes the idea of toilet paper makes people giggle a little—but she thinks maybe that’s a good thing.

"The toilet paper drive I’m going to predict is going to be one of our most-talked-about initiatives."

Now, volunteerism is nothing new. But it’s more vital now.

"I believe that the role of volunteers has become increasingly important in the last few years."

That’s Chris Rediehs—he’s the commissioner of St. Lawrence County social services.

The 2010 census found that almost 17% of people in St. Lawrence County were living below the poverty line: relying on food stamps, cash assistance, LIEAP, and Medicaid.

Meanwhile, the coming year’s state budget either cuts funding or suspends regular funding increases in many human service programs. And then there’s the federal cuts to LIHEAP.

"We are seeing more people than we’ve ever seen coming to us with extra challenges this year," Rediehs says. "Unfortunately the funding really hasn’t kept up with these increases, so funds are stretched very thin at this time. Private and public sector, stretched thin."

Rediehs says volunteers step in in all kinds of ways:

"The public and private orgs that use them would not have been able to rise to this challenge without their help."

And Alicia Murphy, of Community Action Angels, says volunteering has another benefit.

"When we have a request for assistance, the very first question on the top of the form is are you willing to volunteer your time to CAA. We want to perpetuate that circle of giving, when we assist someone we encourage them to go out and help someone else in return."

And she says it’s working. Murphy is the organization’s only employee.

And she’s confident that when her one-year contract is up, she’ll leave behind an organization that’s self-sustaining, and run entirely by volunteers.

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