Imagine this scenario. An individual visits Salvation Army to seek assistance for the holidays. A volunteer takes the person's information and notes their specific need; but the volunteer may not be aware that this person has already received help from a church and two other agencies in the past month.
In times of a healthy economy, Salvation Army might have enough money to help the person anyway, but now, funds are becoming more scarce. By the end of November, local charitable agencies say they are expected to have a new method of record keeping to prevent duplication of services and distribute assistance more fairly to those in need.
Sharon George of Family and Children First council, presided at a meeting earlier this month to introduce the Seneca County CHARitable Management System or CHARM.
Participating agencies are to be able to access this information-sharing resource to keep track of families receiving assistance, the agencies that provide help and the kind of help given.
"When you work with families, particularly those from generational poverty, your learn they are excellent problem solvers. It there is a need, they are going to figure out a way to meet that need ... to take care of their families," George said.
Sometimes that includes accepting assistance from multiple organizations. George and Connie Maksemitz, wrap-around coordinator for Family and Children First, shared a story from her first year on the job. She and George said they discovered a family they helped with Christmas gifts had collected gifts from three other agencies as well. The person was spotted returning gifts to a store for cash two weeks after the holiday.
"Those are exceptions we're trying to prevent," George said. "Everyone's mission is to help families in need ... and I think it will be easier to ask people for donations if we show we're being good stewards of their donations."
The mission for most organizations is to help as many families as possible. When one family receives donations from four agencies, that could mean four other families getting no help.
The idea for CHARM originated in an ad hoc committee of Community Council.
Mary Huffman of St. Vincent de Paul said she has been suggesting such a resource for years.
Andrew Radcliff, IT specialist at Opportunity Center has been working to set up the program and get it operational in early December. CHARM is expected to cut down on abuses, as long as member agencies keep updating files.
Radcliff said proof of financial status can be noted for each family or person. Clients are to be asked to sign a form allowing the release of information only to other member agencies. George emphasized the program is not an effort to dictate what members must do for a given individual seeking assistance.
"No one ... is intending on superceding your own missions in your organizations. Everybody still wants each organization to continue business as usual. No one wants to second-guess what anybody is doing," George said.
When organizations do not communicate with one another, clients are enabled to manipulate the system. George said the hope is for member agencies to have regular meetings at which to analyze data being entered to determine the most pressing needs in the community. The information also could provide insights for programs to help clients become more self-sufficient.
"How do we help them to be more empowered to take control of their families, instead of continuing to lean on systems that can't support - that were never meant to support - life-time dependence? George said.
George said she became FCFC director 11 years ago. The changes she has seen in the community also have changed her approach to giving assistance. Having taught budgeting classes and Bridges Out of Poverty program, she said she observed families who have received such instruction tend to manage their finances more efficiently.
"What we're defining as 'help' is very different today than it was 11 years ago. I am very fearful for us building dependence on a broken system ... What will happen when people - who are already over-taxed and underemployed and are not getting raises - stop donating?" George said.
Maksemitz said she used to be able to send families to a variety of different agencies to get the family back on track.
"They could go every six months and get help. Now, with budget cuts from the state and not having the money we used to have years ago, these families became dependent ... they're struggling a lot because the programs are not there or the funding is not there," Maksemitz said.
An added benefit of CHARM is the opportunity for agencies to ask clients for volunteer hours in exchange for support. George said many people are glad for an opportunity to repay with in-kind services. They may regain some dignity and a sense of importance.
Huffman said she has requested trustworthy people to work in the St. Vincent store in exchange for help with rent or utilities. If she gives someone $35 for a bill, she asks for a certain number of hours of work.
"We put a value of $5 an hour on their time," Huffman said. "So he will work for us for seven hours. Sometimes, when they have to work, it keeps them from coming back the next time. And sometimes they want to work ... There's a lot to be gained by expecting something from them," Huffman said.
Susan Beck pointed out some clients simply lose track of the amount of money they have received. Her files showed one woman who recently contacted First Call for Help already was given $1,500 in 2011.
"She was appalled. She said 'I didn't know,'" Beck said.
Radcliff said the information entered into the system can be sorted into various categories. He walked the agency representatives through the process for a fictional client.
Member agencies are to be assigned a user name and password for access to the data base.
New Salvation Army Captains P.B. and Becky Stetzer said they are eager to learn about the resources in the area, especially programs that may help with transportation. Maksemitz said "working poor" who may not qualify for some programs still should check with local agencies for Christmas assistance. She said a good place to start is First Call For Help, (419) 448-4357.