For charities and their clients, a glimmer of hope

Without help, Francine Murray might not be where she is now, having just completed her first semester at Santa Fe College with a 3.5 grade-point average.

For years, Murray, 28, struggled with the mathematics portion of the GED, and it wasn’t until she met with tutors at Gainesville Community Ministry earlier this year that she passed the exam.

Now, she is volunteering as a tutor herself and helping to organize a toy drive for fellow Santa Fe students with children.

Just as things seem to be turning around for Murray, who wants to one day have a career as a psychologist, local agencies that help the area’s needy are beginning to see some rays of hope after years of hardship.

Debbie Mason, the president and CEO of the United Way of North Central Florida, said that contributions are on the rise.

It’s a reversal of fortune that saw individual donations to the local United Way drop from $4 million in 2007 to $3.2 million in 2010.

The figures from the 2011 campaign won’t be available until the spring, Mason said, but indications are that the situation is turning around.

“We do the workplace campaigns in the fall, and the contributions were up a little bit,” she said.

“That’s a good positive trend that people are starting to respond to the community needs to a deeper degree, if they are so blessed to have a job,” she said. “It’s the first positive glimmer that people are hearing our message and digging a little deeper.”

Donations to GCM went from more than $1 million in the "banner year" of 2008 to a little more than $600,000 so far this year, he said.

And though the trend might start to turn around, he and Mason both worry about the post-Christmas lull in giving.

"Once Christmas gets behind us and people stop worrying about the holidays and people that are in need, those people will still be in need," Wright said.

In November, he said, his organization got 363 requests for assistance with utility bills. With the roughly $2,000 for the month that GCM got through Gainesville Regional Utilities customers, he was able to help nine families keep their electricity and water on.

He said he got a similar amount of money from the federal government to help people move into housing by paying their security deposits and other expenses, and of the 56 requests for help, he could assist only four families.

"A lot of our donors are older people who relied on the stock market," he said, adding that their income started falling as the economy crashed.

In the past few years, he said, some former donors have had to come for food from the pantry.

And for the people the organization couldn't help, Wright said their situations likely haven't improved.

"They weren't digging in the back yard and oil popped up," he said.

"We want to give them a fair shot. If they trip and stumble, we want to be there to help them up and brush them off and get them back into the game," he said.

They are people like Erica Collins, a Gainesville mother of four, who recently started getting grocery assistance through a United Way partnership with eight schools.

Her children come home every week with canned peaches and corn, peanut butter, and cereal.

Asked what life would be like without the program, Collins said, "A lot more of a struggle."

Virginia MacKoul

Virginia is a graduate from the University of Florida's College of Design Construction and Planning with a degree in Sustainability and the Built Environment, and a minor in Urban Regional Planning. Virginia joined the Front Street team in 2011, as an intern. Upon graduation, Virginia joined the Front Street team full-time as the Director of Client Services. Ms. MacKoul’s addition furthers Front Street’s continued growth and expansion within Gainesville and other North Central Florida markets. She was promoted to Director of Marketing in 2014 and now manages the firm’s team of interns and oversees all marketing and branding activity. Virginia was born in Boston and moved to Lee County, Florida in 1997. Virginia graduated her high school's International Baccalaureate program and started at the University of Florida with a focus on Architecture. Virginia shares Front Street's passion of giving back to the community and those in need. Virginia's hobbies include photography, cooking, football, movies, music, and spending time with her dog, Brinkley.

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