Community Services leader fears more woes coming

Last year was a hard one for scores of local families facing financial difficulties due to the COVID-19 pandemic and economic doldrums. And 2021 may bring the same woes.

And while that’s the take from Mary Jeanne Gavin, executive director of the non-profit Community Services of Venango County, there is gratitude that the community stepped up to help last year and optimism that the same support will be there this year.

“Our community was awesome,” said Gavin. “The volunteer numbers went up. The donations went up and many people got their stimulus checks and turned around and donated it to us. And people offered to take food right out of their own cupboards to help us.”

The outpouring of support allowed the 54-year-old agency to devise new ways to help an onslaught of new clients seeking help. New to the organization’s list of services in 2020 were COVID boxes that contained cleaning and sanitation supplies, personal hygiene bags and school lunches.

“We were able to do all that because of the donations. And, for the first time, we provided Christmas meals to help 300 families,” said Gavin.

Even as the SNAP food stamp program ramped up to help families and individuals with food needs, there was an abundance of first-time clients asking Community Services for help last year.

“We saw a significant number of new families and individuals coming in. I’m sure it was because they were out of work or other things had changed and they didn’t know what resources were available,” said Gavin. “Once they found out we were available, they came to our food pantry. They were in a newfound situation and didn’t know the resources, all the while trying to figure out this new way of life,” Gavin added.

Those new to the Community Services offerings last year were more than 100 individuals and at least two dozen families.

Worries about 2021

While the food concerns will continue this year, Gavin believes more people could face housing challenges in 2021.

“This year, I am really concerned that many people put off paying their rent or their utility bills so we are going to see an influx with people needing assistance on rent and utilities,” she said. “Unfortunately, the first thing to go is money for food as they take that to help with their utilities. I think as we progress into 2021, we will see more of that.”

When local residents register with Community Services to receive help, they are asked to answer a brief survey. Among the questions are health issues, employment status and housing needs. The agency compiles an extensive data report on those responses.

“In 2020, we saw that people dropped off visiting a doctor so I am concerned about looking forward and addressing health needs,” said Gavin. “They put those needs on hold and that will have an impact on 2021. And we provide help for that.”

Employment, too, is one of the sign-up questions. Gavin said that from January to December 2020, the number of people who said they were employed dropped by half.

“That will catch up in 2021 with perhaps more people out of work,” she said.

Recipients of the agency’s many services are also asked if they have a place to live.

“The number of homeless people dropped off to nothing during the early COVID stages because people were scared and wanted to make sure they were somewhere, even if they were staying on a sofa in somebody’s house,” said Gavin.”But, the homeless numbers are picking up and so I think there will be housing needs. And I am concerned about that.”

Donations are accepted

To cope with what may be a jump in requests for assistance, Community Services is relying on contributions and volunteers.

“Donations are always welcome. Because of those donations, we were able to purchase food for our food pantries, pay for emergency aid and more,” said Gavin. “We had to close our clothing rooms for a while last year and while they are now open, we will need household and clothing donations because we weren’t taking in any for several months.”

Volunteers, too, are always needed to help handle what Gavin fears will be another busy year .

“We can only take a few volunteers at a time but we can always use them,” she said. “I don’t want people to forget about volunteering and I hope people will still want to do that. Non-profits thrive on volunteers.”

Gavin said she and her co-workers understand there may be a “fatigue factor” for residents who have been consistent in supporting Community Services.

“My message to the community is this – you have all been awesome. We don’t know what this year will bring, with the COVID, but I hope people will still find it in their hearts to continue to help others,” Gavin said. “Our community really rallies around each other. People don’t even blink. They don’t hesitate. They step up.”

Information about donations and volunteer work is available by calling the agency at (814) 676-5011 or (814) 432-5749.