For many local residents, the last several years have felt like a three-punch knockout.
Just as the region was still reeling from the pandemic and the housing crisis, Hurricane Ian hit.
Through it all, caseworkers say, residents have had a constant source of support: Season of Sharing.
As its 22nd annual fundraising campaign kicks off today, Season of Sharing’s role in the community is more important than ever.
“I think we’re going to see a lot more need in the community and for things that heretofore have not been big issues, but are now,” said Margie Genter, vice president of mission services for Goodwill Manasota.
Storm relief can be slow coming from agencies like FEMA, she said. And with the state’s problems with homeowner’s insurance, many have gone without flood protection. Federal and other aid may not cover a total loss.
“And on top of Hurricane Ian stuff, we’re still seeing people struggling as before,” Genter added, referring to an affordable housing crisis exacerbated by some of the highest rental rate hikes in the nation.
Residents need a place to turn.
Time-tested safety net
Since 2000, the Community Foundation of Sarasota County has partnered with the Herald-Tribune and area nonprofits to prevent homelessness through Season of Sharing, which has helped more than 41,000 households.
Donations from the fundraiser assist residents year-round in Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte and DeSoto counties with mortgage payments, rent, child care, car repairs and other expenses.
With its local administration, lack of red tape and the tireless work of case managers at a broad network of partner nonprofits, Season of Sharing moves quickly to lift local residents out of a bind.
“Season of Sharing is like the Good Samaritan approach to philanthropy, where we always feel that it is neighbors helping neighbors,” said Kirsten Russell, the Community Foundation’s vice president of community impact.
It’s also flexible. In response to pressing problems brought on by the pandemic and the housing crisis, the maximum allotment per applicant was raised to $2,000 this year, or $3,500 in certain situations.
Equally responsive is the community. Reflecting concern for their neighbors and a trust in Season of Sharing’s time-tested model, donors last year smashed through all records and previous milestones in the fundraising campaign’s history by giving more than $4.4 million.
That included a record-setting $700,000 matching gift from The Patterson Foundation. With each $500,000 raised from the community, The Patterson Foundation donated an additional $100,000. That will continue this year.
The vast majority of donations come in small amounts, less than $100 each, some for the first time and others as years-long repeats.
“That tells me that people recognize the need and the role that Season of Sharing plays as our community’s safety net,” Russell said.
While other funds exist to help with long-term hurricane recovery efforts, donors know that Season of Sharing can swoop in to assist through an increasingly effective system, said Debra Jacobs, president and CEO of The Patterson Foundation.
“Whether it is COVID or Ian or a personal medical disaster that someone has, emergencies come unexpected,” Jacobs said. “And it’s the role of Season of Sharing to offer people immediate relief.”
From disaster to fresh start
That certainly was the case for Jason Brown, a North Port paramedic dispatcher.
Brown, 48, and wife, Amanda, got hit hard by unexpected housing costs last year after a move to Florida from Missouri with their kids. After many sleepless nights and falling behind on their bills, they turned to North Port Social Services, which tapped Season of Sharing to help them cover one month’s rent.
That leg up helped restore the family's financial stability through 2022.
“Season of Sharing really came through for us,” said Brown, who has since returned to a job as an over-the-road truck driver. “It definitely kick-started things for us in the right direction.”
Other Season of Sharing recipients from last year were able to get on their feet – only to be knocked down again by Hurricane Ian – an indication of community-wide problems ahead.
A'Lea Smith, 28, is a registered nurse and mother of two small children. In debt from medical and education bills, she fell behind last year after a relationship breakup and increased expenses. Season of Sharing helped her catch up.
This year, still living paycheck-to-paycheck – with child care eating big portions of her income – she planned to sell her North Port house to wipe out her debt and pay for a master’s degree. Then Hurricane Ian sent a tree crashing through her roof.
Feeling fortunate it wasn’t worse, by early November she was still in limbo between FEMA and her homeowner’s insurance, which just raised her premium by $1,000 for the coming year.
Despite black mold and brown spots growing on her ceiling, neither her insurance or FEMA has given her a response.
What’s more, her plan to rent after selling her house might be off the table.
“The rent prices were already crazy, and now they are really expensive,” Smith said, noting the spike after the storm passed and demand soared. “There are a lot of people displaced.”
Kayla Yenna, 32, is in a similar bind.
Last year, fighting cancer and losing time at work, Yenna fell behind on her bills.
A mother of two girls, now ages 12 and 7, she got caught up with help from Season of Sharing and Family Promise of South Sarasota County, later obtaining a job as a property manager on Don Pedro Island.
Then Hurricane Ian hit – filling their North Port rental home with 17 inches of water from an adjacent canal for days. They escaped out of the neighborhood in an inflatable boat, salvaging a few bags of clothes, their flooded car ruined.
With their lease expiring, the landlord declared the house uninhabitable, telling her they had to go.
Now Yenna and her girls are crowded into her mother’s three-bedroom house in Englewood, along with her sister’s family – also displaced by the storm.
“Everything I have found are only seasonal rentals, and they want $2,600 for a one-bedroom,” she said. “Now we’re trying to look into buying, so that’s our next step, trying to purchase a home, but I don’t know how likely that is going to be because the market is so crazy.”
The stress is immense, but she tries to stay positive for the girls, telling them it’s a chance to start over.
“I’m looking at it as a fresh start,” she said.
'We have to step up'
Before Ian, caseworkers were already scrambling to help local residents beset by monthly rental increases in the hundreds of dollars. Vehicle repairs were rising, too -- necessary due to the crucial need for transport to work and the soaring costs of new and used cars.
Susan Schoengold, the coordinator of Jewish Financial Assistance and Jewish Care Management at JFCS of the Suncoast has had Season of Sharing clients return the past year, needing to ask for more.
"One Season of Sharing scoop is not enough. People are repeating," she said. "Now it's a bigger mess with the hurricane."
Not only has the hurricane damaged an already paltry supply of affordable housing for area families. But since the storm, she is getting calls from residents near Sanibel Island and Ft. Myers--seeking housing here, too.
Challenges in the year ahead will be great, caseworkers say. Long-term solutions are needed.
But in the short-term, there is Season of Sharing.
“It’s the most reliable funding in the community at any given time,” said Chris Russi, community fiscal agent and liaison at The Glasser/Schoenbaum Human Services Center.
With “unquestionable support for the community,” it keeps the lights on and a roof over people's heads -- whether they have fallen between the cracks of FEMA or been set back by an illness. Through its history, crisis after crisis, it comes through.
“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Russi said of Season of Sharing.
Roxie Jerde, president and CEO of the Community Foundation, agrees.
Season of Sharing not only helps keep people in their homes. It aids their mental health, relieving unbearable stress.
None of it is possible, Jerde added, without generous givers. 100% of donations to Season of Sharing go entirely to recipients, with no administration fees.
The funds, she said, are out there because people have come together to play a part in building a community where everyone can thrive.
“We know how generous people are here,” she said. “They understand we have to take care of each other, and if they have the means to give, they recognize, ‘We have to step up.’”
How to help
Season of Sharing was created 21 years ago as a partnership between the Herald-Tribune and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County to get emergency funds to individuals and families on the brink of homelessness in Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte and DeSoto counties. There are no administrative fees and no red tape – every dollar donated goes to families in need to help with rental assistance, utility bills, child care and other expenses.
Donations to Season of Sharing may be made online at cfsarasota.org/donors/support-season-of-sharing, or by sending a check (payable to the Community Foundation of Sarasota County) to Attn. Season of Sharing, 2635 Fruitville Road, Sarasota, FL 34237. Contact the foundation at 941-955-3000 for more information or to request a credit card form. All donations are tax-deductible.
See the story with photos, as it originally appeared on Nov. 13 in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, here.