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Pandemic meets holiday season: Centre County nonprofits face increased need, continued challenges


The holiday season is typically a busy time for nonprofits in Centre County, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve already been stretched for months.

Many in-person fundraisers that play a crucial role to the viability of nonprofits have been canceled, all during a time when more support is needed.

“People think, ‘If I have $5 and I give to an organization it’s not going to make a difference.’ But it really does,” Centre County United Way Executive Director Wendy Vinhage said. “I just want to encourage everyone to give what they can, if they can.”

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A team effort to feed Centre County

Centre County anti-hunger advocates have been working for months to keep up with growing demand for food as the pandemic continues to put a strain on financial resources for families.

“People are really struggling,” Mel Curtis, executive director of the Moshannon Valley YMCA, said. “We’re still facing a tremendous amount of the unknown, and our numbers are just blowing through the roof.”

Since March, the YMCA of Centre County has served more than 339,000 meals to families, seniors and children in need at 50 feeding sites. Hundreds of volunteers logged nearly 13,000 hours of service while helping distribute 600 tons of food.

Volunteers pack up boxes of food for those in need outside the Moshannon Valley YMCA on Thursday, April 16, 2020. Abby Drey

“This is a task that keeps growing,” Curtis said.

Earlier this month, the Moshannon Valley YMCA hosted a free food distribution. Two hours before the food delivery truck was scheduled to arrive, the parking lot in front the Philipsburg facility was full of people waiting for groceries.

With schools closed for holiday breaks and coronavirus outbreaks, Curtis expects need for a reliable food source will increase for local families. To prepare, volunteers spend weekends packing boxes of food for households and stuffing backpacks for the weekly school feeding program.

“This is the time of year, with winter and the holidays, that makes you realize the work we are doing is greatly needed and appreciated by those we are serving,” Curtis said. “Please keep all of our volunteers in your thoughts and prayers because they’re busting it to make sure no one goes hungry. Without them being safe and healthy, we could have serious problems.”

Though Curtis worries about recruiting volunteers and maintaining supplies, he said local initiatives and partnerships with food banks have been a tremendous help when it comes to feeding those in need.

In addition to assisting clients with weekly groceries and holiday meals, the State College Food Bank took efforts a step further last week with a drive-thru food distribution to ensure that no one goes without a Thanksgiving meal. In partnership with the State College Area School District and Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, it provided over 600 people with a turkey, pre-packed food, fresh milk and eggs.

“The goals of this distribution is to reach those in Centre County who do not meet income qualifications for their local pantry but could still use some help to get through the holiday because of the current pandemic,” Allayn Beck, State College Food Bank executive director, wrote in an email.

The food bank was also assisted this month by the Juniata Valley Council Boy Scouts of America, whose annual Scouting for Food program had a pandemic push.

Local Scouts and volunteers distributed over 50,000 door hangers to promote the program in Centre County. Then participants collected more than 43,000 pounds of food — a 60% increase — that was donated to the State College Food Bank.

“Additional food was collected outside of State College that will help fill the shelves of other area food banks and pantries as well,” Juniata Valley Council President David Eng wrote in a letter to the Centre Daily Times. “I am so proud of how our Scouts and leaders contributed hundreds of hours of community service and thanks to all who donated food.”

Supporting each other, first responders

The Centre County United Way has been “pleasantly surprised” with the amount of donations for partner agencies that have poured into its annual campaign, Vinhage said.

But she’s also aware that many nonprofits will have to address the fallout in the months and years to come.

“Those events that were canceled brought in large amounts of money that were really important for these nonprofits,” Vinhage said. “I don’t want to give the impression that everything is fine; I think we’re just happy that people are donating.”

It’s not uncommon for charitable giving to increase during crises, Penn State marketing professor Karen Winterich said.

Two of the main reasons people feel compelled to donate are identification and connection. Those who donate often feel they can identify or connect with those who are struggling.

Another key driver is feeling like an individual donation will make a meaningful difference. Charitable giving may allow donors to feel like they have control of an uncertain situation.

“A lot of people feel helpless right now. There is a lot of uncertainty and they don’t know what to do. And by donating, they can feel like they’re having a little bit of influence when everything else is so uncertain,” Winterich said. “... We’re in this time of crisis, we’re really being hit hard — what can we do? We can rally together and try to support each other.”

And many first responders need the support.

Most volunteer fire organizations in Pennsylvania are nonprofits that largely rely on three main sources of income to survive. Two of the three — fundraisers and fund drives — have essentially been wiped out because of COVID-19.

“It has caused us to cancel darn near every fundraiser we have,” Howard Fire Company President Mark Ott said.

The volunteer department canceled its annual Punkin’ Chunkin’ event, its largest fundraiser of the year. The jamboree typically nets the fire department $25,000, about 20% of its annual budget.

Mark Ott, president of the Howard Fire Department, talks about the issues facing the department on Jan. 16, 2019. Abby Drey

“We’ve had some generous donations from local churches and local individuals, but we can always use more. That’s for every fire company,” Ott said. “It’s not just Howard, it’s every fire company in the county that’s volunteer. They’ve gotta make that money somehow.”

Emergency medical services in the Keystone State faced an average loss of $70,000 during the first month of the state’s emergency declaration, according to the Ambulance Association of Pennsylvania.

Port Matilda EMS Captain David Corle Sr. bluntly said “pretty much everyone is running on what reserves they got.” The agency began its annual membership drive weeks ago, and Corle said it was not immediately clear what the response was.

Ambulance Association of Pennsylvania Executive Director Heather Sharar openly wondered if EMS agencies would receive a “good response” to donation requests.

“If you’re looking at an industry or a community that has been hit really hard by COVID, EMS definitely ranks right up top,” Sharar said. “They still have to be there, they still have a duty to respond, but who is going to pay them?”

Ways to help

Those looking to give locally this season have many options, even if they may look different this year. Annual giving events might now be virtual, such as the Alternative Christmas Fair, and fundraisers like the Polar Bear Plunge have adapted to be socially distanced while Interfaith Human Services’ Wishing Well campaign gives supporters options for giving this year.

After Thanksgiving, the YMCA will begin work on its Christmas and holiday food distribution program.

“That’s going to be a very hard time for families,” Curtis said. “Some families, I expect, will be in need of daily food because kids aren’t going to be in school.”

Donations can be dropped off at any Centre County YMCA branch, and State College Food Bank drop-off hours are Mondays from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Wednesdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and by appointment.

“We need help all over the place,” Curtis said. “The need is very real.”

What do nonprofits need this holiday season?

The Centre Daily Times invites area nonprofits to complete a form outlining the areas of greatest need this holiday season. The responses will be used for an upcoming story in print, and an updated list online. Visit to learn more.

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