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October 25, 2014

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School District donors still giving, but will they outlast need?

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Sam Morris

Whitney Elementary School students pick a book each to keep from a donation of 500 books from KIDS, Inc. on Friday.

‘COMPASSION FATIGUE'’

During times of extended crisis or natural disasters, the public is bombarded with requests to help those in need. Such repeated requests for assistance can cause compassion fatigue among donors. “They know people are stressed by all these new requests for help,” said Stacy Palmer, editor for the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

CHARITABLE VALLEY

Nearly 3,700 people helped Three Square Food Bank this year assemble weekend backpacks of nutritious snacks for schools to give to students. The number of schools “adopted” by local businesses rose to 132 from 115. And though the district lost some banking industry partners, newcomers stepped up to keep the total over 200.

Beyond the Sun

At Whitney Elementary School, where most of the students qualify as homeless, Friday was a particularly good day.

Every child got to choose a new book to keep, thanks to a donation from Kids In Distressed Situations (KIDS) Inc., a New York-based nonprofit that distributes goods to needy children worldwide.

And local businessman Robert Ellis stopped by with a check for $50,000. Whitney Principal Sherrie Gahn says that’s enough for her to make sure students have access to meals at a local community center when school closes for the summer, and for her to stockpile supplies for the fall.

“We’re fortunate that we have a core group of donors,” said Gahn, who has garnered national attention for her efforts to secure expanded services for her students. “But I worry about wearing out our welcome — that on any given day the other shoe’s going to drop, that we’re not going to be able to give our kids what they need.”

Gahn isn’t alone.

The Clark County School District is experiencing record levels of need, as students and their families struggle with the fallout of the prolonged recession. Even the most optimistic projections for the state’s economic future suggest the district will continue to need to lean heavily on donations to provide support services for some time.

The district may wind up hamstrung by “compassion fatigue,” which can occur during times of extended crisis or natural disasters, as the public is bombarded with requests for help. Charitable groups nationwide share Gahn’s concerns, said a Washington, D.C.-based publication that reports on nonprofit organizations.

“They know people are stressed by all these new requests for help,” said Stacy Palmer, editor for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. "At times like these, you have to turn to those who have always been loyal to you."

Community groups are also finding it advantageous to streamline their requests for assistance, which is why organizations like the United Way are particularly successful, Palmer said.

“People were so tired of all these separate pitches from different groups — organizing under one umbrella made sense,” Palmer said. “Everyone’s trying to make sure they don’t annoy donors while making sure there are sufficient funds to get the work done.”

Dan Goulet, president and CEO of the United Way of Southern Nevada, said many people locally are indeed answering the call. On Thursday, Goulet announced the organization had raised just over $12 million in its annual campaign, up 7 percent, or $800,000, over the prior year. He estimated that a third of the group’s programs are geared toward early childhood education.

“Those who have never given before are stepping up,” Goulet said. “And those who have given in the past are giving more.”

The prolonged effects of the recession “have been personalized for a lot of people,” Goulet said. “Those who are giving know somebody who’s facing hard times.”

The School District has also seen an increase in community support. This year nearly 3,700 people helped the Three Square Food Bank assemble weekend backpacks of nutritious snacks for schools to distribute to students, up from 2,800 in 2009. The number of schools “adopted” by local businesses rose to 132 from 115. And while the district did lose some of its banking industry partners, their spots were filled by newcomers and the roster total remained more than 200.

Louise Helton, state director of Communities in Schools of Southern Nevada, said she’s seen no signs of compassion fatigue at the local level. However, she added, “we’ve really had to redouble our efforts” to keep up with the demand for assistance. Communities in Schools matches donors with individual campuses and provides basic medical care at several campus-based health clinics. The group also helps facilitate support from national organizations, including KIDS 10,000-book donation to the School District.

Whitney Elementary School

At Whitney, students walk to school from budget motels and small tract homes, many of which are shared by multiple families. Gahn estimated that over 80 percent of the students don’t have “a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” That’s the federal government’s definition of homelessness, and it’s used by school districts to determine who qualifies for aid.

Because the needs of her students are so great, Gahn has had to opt for the “direct appeal” route to secure everything from haircuts to eyeglasses. The donor list includes area businesses, local private schools and individuals like Ellis.

A local businessman and 1960 graduate of Rancho High School, Ellis adopted Whitney about five years ago. He has provided tens of thousands of dollars over the years, helping to pay for food, supplies and holiday gifts.

When asked why he chose to support Whitney, Ellis said it wasn’t a tough decision after he visited the campus near Boulder Highway and Tropicana Avenue.

“This school does a beautiful job,” Ellis said. “If more people came out here and met the students, they’d do what I did.”

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