Halfway into this year's critical Season of Sharing fundraising campaign to help families through an emergency, donations are nearing $3 million - just ahead of last year's totals at this same point.
More than $2.66 million had been raised for Season of Sharing through the week ending December 22, according to the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. That includes $400,000 from The Patterson Foundation, which contributes $100,000 for every $500,000 donated by the community.
The announcement was made amid what many consider to be one of the most important campaigns in the fund's 23-year history - coming after a year of unprecedented requests for help.
Season of Sharing - started in 2000 by the Community Foundation and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune to help prevent homelessness - supports families and individuals through a one-time crisis in Sarasota, Manatee, DeSoto and Charlotte counties.
The assistance must go toward rent or mortgage payments, utility bills, childcare, or transportation costs.
It is an efficient and effective way to lessen the burden on thousands of households following a missed paycheck, medical emergency or other unexpected disaster, said Roxie Jerde, president and CEO of the Community Foundation.
"The funds raised are of vital importance because there are so many people facing unexpected challenges," Jerde added.
This past year, thousands of calls poured into the foundation's partnering nonprofits and its own lines in what one community fiscal agent called an "unbelievable volume of need."
Case managers attributed the spike to the end of pandemic relief as well as accumulating effects from Hurricane Ian, lost work hours, inflation, high childcare costs and the summer heat wave. But the biggest culprit, they said, was the ongoing housing crisis.
Rising rents and the dire shortage of workforce housing and affordable senior options left everyone from healthcare workers to service employees, teachers to retirees floundering when faced with the slightest setback.
While Season of Sharing typically helps about 3,000 households a year with one-time assistance, the final number from this past year is expected to top 4,500.
The high level of hardship caused the fund to be drawn down before the end of 2023.
That prompted the Community Foundation - which administers Season of Sharing at no administrative cost, ensuring monies go entirely to recipients' emergency expenses - to tap into the fund's reserves.
The result is that Season of Sharing will start its new year on Feb. 1 with only the amount raised during this annual fundraising campaign.
And so far, residents are responding to the call - a level of generosity in helping their fellow neighbors that is "truly heartwarming," said Debra Jacobs, president and CEO of The Patterson Foundation.
"This is a reminder of how we can transform challenges into opportunities for support and connection, ultimately fostering a more resilient community," Jacobs added.
While the current campaign's achievements thus far should be celebrated, she said, it is also important to recognize that community challenges remain and are growing.
Numerous initiatives by community leaders and local governments to address affordable and attainable housing and childcare could take years to have an effect.
In the meantime, Jacobs said, residents can be there for each other.
"As we confront these ongoing challenges, let's continue to nurture this spirit of generosity, ensuring that our community remains a place where support and hope are always within reach."
This story comes from a partnership between the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. Saundra Amrhein covers the Season of Sharing campaign, along with issues surrounding housing, utilities, child care and transportation in the area. She can be reached at email@example.com