Down and out at Thanksgiving

Social needs are rising across Rhode Island, and things will get worse before they get better
By IAN DONNIS  |  November 24, 2008


In a time of widespread layoffs, decimated retirement accounts, and uncertainty about the fallout of the ongoing fiscal crisis, downsized requests for help are a sign of the times.

In a possible harbinger of similar efforts by other social agencies, Westerly Area Rest Meals (WARM) recently launched "A Dollar Makes a Difference!," a campaign in which it is seeking donations of $1 a week, from October 1 through March, 1 to help Westerly's most needy residents keep warm this winter.

"People do not have the same resources that they had six months ago," notes Leah Eagen-Stoddard, WARM's development associate. Seeking such small donations doesn't make people "think whether they're going to have to dip into their family's budget. It almost takes the decision away, it's so nominal . . . It does reflect the environment we're in now, because people are thinking a lot more carefully about where their money goes."

Many people have responded, Eagen-Stoddard says, either with checks for $22, by rounding the amount up to $25, by sending a few dollar bills, or just one. The effort — 21-year-old WARM's first heating assistance fund — has raised $7052 since October 1.

At the other end of the spectrum, from November 24 through January 3, the Capital Grille in Providence will offer a "$1000 charity martini" — it comes adorned with jewelry — to benefit the hunger-relief organization Share Our Strength (

Across Rhode Island, nonprofits, community groups, and others are responding in various ways, from Trinity Rep staging a free December 1 performance of A Christmas Carol to the annual post-Thanksgiving Buy Nothing Day coat exchange ( staged on the State House lawn and at additional locations.

The not-very-surprising constant, social agencies and advocates tell the Phoenix, is a significantly heightened level of social need as Rhode Island heads into the 2008 holiday season.

"There are people who are seeking support from us who in the past have been supporters," says WARM's Eagen-Stoddard. "Our soup kitchen numbers are going up."

The economy in Rhode Island — which recently eclipsed Michigan as the nation's unemployment-percentage leader — was already stalling before the national fiscal crisis emerged in September.

The state's ongoing financial woes (highlighted by the discovery of a $357 million deficit in the current budget), which will cause additional cuts to social programs, meaning that less assistance will be available at a time of growing need. To top it all off, no one expects the overall economic situation to improve anytime soon.

Little wonder, then, that some social agencies around Rhode Island, focused on the task at hand, are struggling to keep up with the need, unable even to think much about how they will respond if things continue to worsen.

At the Comprehensive Community Action Program in Cranston, one of eight such programs around the state, public donations to provide a Thanksgiving food basket to a needy family have dropped every year since 9/11. Social services director Joanne Gregory attributes the decline to the deteriorating economic plight of many Rhode Islanders.

As a result, the number of baskets offered by the program, formerly 600, has fallen to 300, and Gregory is hopeful that sufficient contributions will be received to maintain that number this time around. (Information about making a donation to the agency can be obtained by going to its Web site,, or by calling 401.467.9610.)

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