Today marks Black Saturday for the Bonita Springs Assistance Office, the official kickoff day for the annual Stocking Fund.
Why black? Why not a prettier, less-foreboding color?
Well, black marks the day because the BAO’s major fundraising effort opens today in the positive, — in the black, with $16,000 already in the kitty on its way to a goal of $175,000.
BAO Administrator Lois Hollands says the organization’s board of directors is taking a cue from last year’s hand-over-fist donations given by a generous Bonita Springs community and increasing the target for 2005/2006. The 2004/2005 Stocking Fund opened just after Thanksgiving last year with about $6,000 stuffed in the sock drawer and went on to raise $172,670.63, shattering the organization’s goal by more than $12,000.
The drive will officially end in February 2006 with the Bonita Springs Rotary Club Noon’s Mardi Gras Charity Ball and Auction. Last February, the Rotary event closed the Stocking Fund on a high note by presenting the BAO with its single largest contribution in the form of a $40,000 check.
The tumultuous hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005 have left many more people than usual looking for a little something extra to get them through difficult stretches, said Hollands. According to the BAO’s 2004 filing with the Internal Revenue Service, the group provided more than $127,000 in direct support to the needy and indigent in the wake of Hurricane Charley. And Hollands expects this year and next to be the most trying on record for struggling individuals and families because of Wilma and the affordable housing crunch.
Wilma put many people who live paycheck to paycheck of out work and out of homes, said Hollands. Less measurable but more crippling to local charities like the BAO is the increasing permanent population of low-wage workers in Bonita Springs — former migrant and seasonal laborers — many of whom find themselves out of work during the off-season and in need of assistance.
“There is a serious amount of underemployment in the winter months,” said Hollands. “People see their wages cut. People working in grocery stores and convenience stores see their hours cut.”
But make no mistake, Hollands isn’t sitting back in her cramped quarters next to the Lions Club on Pennsylvania Avenue just handing out dollars to every Tom, Dick and Harriet who walk through the door. She deals in tough love, administering equal parts jurisprudence and compassionate skepticism.
“We give people a hand up, not a hand out,” said Hollands
Sometimes — when the grift is right — Hollands will give them a hand out the door.
Last Tuesday, a fellow entered the office with a conundrum. He smiled. He acted deferentially to staff. He sat and waited patiently while Hollands and a volunteer handed over two grocery bags full of food to one woman and then discussed paying utility bills with another.
Then he stated his case: After purchasing a new car, he noticed gas was getting difficult to come by, but not impossible to afford. What he needed was for the BAO to fill up his tank, maybe two tanks, so that he could drive home for Thanksgiving.
Hollands turned him down and the man left in a huff. Before he slammed the door, he said, “Well that’s not very Christian.”
“That man there wanted us to finance his weekend,” said Hollands. “I avoid cynicism. But you have to know the difference between the needy and the greedy here.”
So she has gotten to know the mask of body language, of pitches in speech, and the common themes inherent to pure fictional stories of distress. When someone has a real problem, it’s evident because the person is proud, ashamed, desperate, protective, strong, or so beaten by illness or hardship that his or her plight is unmistakable.
“One woman said to me, ‘I felt like I had to lie to you for help.’ I told her that if she has got me running around, trying to figure out the truth ... Well, I have ways of finding out. You can check these things.”
Everything that the BAO deals in is “community grown,” says Hollands, from the problems to the donations of time and money.
From the outside, Bonita Springs may seem like a city that is growing into pockets of secluded affluence and poverty, but the place is so much more rich with history and tradition and, therefore, deserving of a more experienced perspective, says Hollands.
For one, giving is something for which Bonitans are famous. They give time and money and the only thing they ask in return “is that the money is spent right in the community.”
Volunteer Marian Taylor is Florida born and raised, having lived on the southwest coast for about 20 years. She is going into her second year volunteering with the BOA. The work is demanding but enjoyable.
Hollands said Taylor is one of her most dependable volunteers.
“She’s one of the best. Don’t chase her away,” said Hollands.
For 20 years the BAO has worked within the community, distributing food from its pantry, helping to pay utility bills, covering rents and mortgages, helping with transportation issues, paying for prescription drugs and coordinating medical care for local individuals and families faced with crises.
Sometimes, even the people who receive help pay it back.
That happened one day when a young man walked into the office and wrote a check for $500. Hollands searched her records for the man’s situation and found his file. What she found baffled her.
“All I gave him was a lecture about managing his money and a little food. That’s it. I guess all he needed was someone to set him straight, pushing him to go out there and achieve something for himself.”
The Banner, your hometown newspaper, is once again sponsoring the Stocking Fund. Every Saturday through the holiday season, The Banner will publish the names of donors, unless confidentiality is requested, and report the fund’s balance on its way to the $175,000 mark.
To contact Hollands at the BAO, call 992-3034. To contribute to the Stocking Fund, mail or drop your donations at the BAO: Bonita Springs Assistance Office, 10346 Pennsylvania Avenue, P.O. Box 16, Bonita Springs, FL 34133. The office is open 1 to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday.
- - -
(Contact Staff Writer Matt Herrick at 213-6047 or at email@example.com)