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Local charities could suffer in wake of Sept. 11

SHARE Local charities could suffer in wake of Sept. 11

The overwhelming outpouring of donations to the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is amazing, gratifying and a bit troubling to local relief agencies.

The spirit of philanthropy and national unity that has risen since that day of tragedy hasn't been seen since World War II, say representatives of the United Way, the Red Cross and other community service groups.

But that tidal wave of giving to terrorist victims might be leaving high and dry others who are in need and the agencies that try to help them. And if the unprecedented supply of relief focuses only on the unprecedented disaster, agencies that routinely come to the rescue of everybody else might have to be rescued themselves.

If donors to United Way, for example, choose to divert even half their money specifically to the victims in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, half of the 49 community service agencies in the United Way of the Great Salt Lake Area would have to close their doors, said Deborah Bayle Nielsen, chief executive officer.

"It is wonderful that people are giving so much to help with this tragedy," Nielsen said. "But problems and needs that were here before Sept. 11 are still here. In fact, needs will probably grow as the full force of the economic impact is felt locally in the coming months."

The United Way's annual fall fund-raising campaign is under way. Nielsen said it is too early to tell how the attacks will ultimately affect the drive. But there is indication that a substantial portion is being designated to the Sept. 11 disaster fund, she said. That fund now totals $271 million nationwide. How much of that is from the Salt Lake area won't be known until the end of the year, Nielsen said.

With donations totalling more than a half billion dollars nationwide, community service agencies recognize the strong potential that "compassion fatigue" will set in over the next several months. But they want to remind the public that their programs are more than "pass-through" agencies and that they, too, have to remain viable.

Utahns have donated $1.2 million to the local Red Cross so far, said Susan Sheehan, chief executive officer of the Salt Lake area chapter.

"It is absolutely astounding how much money has been donated," Sheehan said. The attacks "have reawakened a spirit of philanthropy and connection between people. That's what we've encouraged and supported all along. And we would just now like to encourage people to support the long-term as well as the immediate needs because we have to be strong and ready in the immediate and long term."

Supplies to the Utah Food Bank have slowed to a trickle in the wake of the disaster. Companies and other donors that would normally focus on the food bank have turned their attention to rallying relief for the terrorist attacks.

The disaster has shown that Utahns really aren't shy about giving once they recognize a need. The current level of giving is atypical for the country but is particularly notable in the Salt Lake area. Communities similar in size to Salt Lake City regularly raise about $20 million in their annual fund drives, according to the United Way. Salt Lake City raised $8 million in last fall's campaign and hopes for $9 million this year. Utah ranks 49th out of 50 states nationwide in the amount donated per capita to United Way organizations.

"Many people tend to be oblivious to the fact that others are struggling and suffering here," Nielsen said, noting that the agency just completed a detailed assessment and found 263 needs in the community that aren't being met. She said the survey showed that extensive family violence and serious mental health problems in the community aren't being addressed, along with poor access to dental, prescription medicine and other routine health maintenance services.

The victims of the terrorist attacks are seen as blameless, which is probably a strong motivating factor in the giving, Sheehan said. "It was a horrible random attack on innocent people. But there is human suffering all around that is not of people's own making.

"We certainly support and encourage whatever gifts people would like to make toward the terrorist attacks," she said. "But we also want people to evaluate the whole scope of their philanthropy and consider that there are people in crisis right here at home."

E-mail: jthalman@desnews.com