After a year of responding to unprecedented requests for help, the Community Foundation of Sarasota County is kicking off one of the most important Season of Sharing fundraising campaigns in the program's 24-year history.
Applications for Season of Sharing funds exploded this past year as federal pandemic relief came to an end - with thousands of working families and seniors struggling amid ongoing crises in housing prices and child care, as well as continuing hurricane impacts and a summer heat wave that sent electric bills soaring.
"I've been in this realm for 10 years and I have never seen anything like it," said Kirsten Russell, vice president of community impact at the Community Foundation.
The total amount that Season of Sharing will grant this year to qualifying residents through its nonprofit partners is on track to reach about $5 million. That is over a million dollars more than the previous highest year, which was during the height of the pandemic.
The number of households helped is expected to top 4,500 - roughly double the pre-pandemic yearly average.
Usually, the foundation carries a reserve in the fund into the next year. But given the enormous magnitude of hardship encountered this past year, Season of Sharing is running low.
"I think there is a good chance that we will get right down to the last hundred dollars," Russell said.
Because of this, Season of Sharing will start its new year on Feb. 1 with only the amount raised between now and then in the annual fundraising campaign.
Started in 2000 by the Community Foundation and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune to provide a safety net for the area's most vulnerable residents, Season of Sharing donations are used year-round to help residents of Sarasota, Manatee, DeSoto and Charlotte counties with emergency expenses in rent or mortgage payments, utilities, childcare or vehicle repairs.
Longer-term solutions are urgent, Russell stressed, as are partnerships with local governments to address factors underlying these crises. But for the moment, Season of Sharing remains an essential - and sometimes the only - lifeline for thousands of households finding themselves in a bind.
"I think people care. I am banking on that - that neighbors care about neighbors, and that our community will continue to show the generosity that they have in past years," she said. "We need you now more than ever."
An accumulation of crises
Calls poured in by the thousands to the foundation and its nonprofit partners over the past year. They came from healthcare workers and service employees; teachers and parents; and seniors on a fixed income.
Many were seeking assistance for the first time in their lives, case managers say.
Numerous factors drove this past year's "unbelievable volume of need," said Chris Russi, community fiscal agent and liaison at The Glasser/Schoenbaum Human Services Center.
The accumulation of one setback after another since the pandemic and the housing crisis meant that many households had no cushion to weather a string of new hardships brought on by Hurricane Ian, inflation and crushing electric bills from the summer heat wave, she said.
The end of federal pandemic relief left many with no place to turn, she said. Not only did Season of Sharing step in as before to help families keep a roof over their heads and the lights on, it also caught many who fell between the cracks of FEMA, homeowners' insurance or local disaster assistance after Hurricane Ian.
More than any other factor, Russi said, the ongoing housing crisis makes it impossible for residents to absorb these blows and catch their breath.
"It is really difficult to solve some of these issues when we don't have affordable housing," she said. "They are just presented with these large increases in rent, and therefore other bills go unpaid."
Because of high rents, service workers - a big part of the area economy - were unable this year to stretch earnings from the busy season through the slow season, she noted. High rents also leave parents grappling for ways to pay almost equally high childcare bills.
Many parents she hears from are taking on second jobs just to make ends meet. Strapped households easily get pushed over the edge by a single car repair or medical expense.
"There's this perception that well, if you just went to budgeting classes you'd be able to figure this out," Russi said. "But much of this is out of their control."
Given its flexibility, trusted model and rapid response, Season of Sharing has proven a vital resource through one community catastrophe after another - especially in years like this past one, when other local grants and federal programs dried up.
"When all of that falls away, unfortunately or fortunately Season of Sharing is the only one that remains," Russi said. While bigger community solutions are needed, for now the fund is critical.
"This is one of the most important campaigns that Season of Sharing has had in a while," she added. "I don't know what 2024 is going to look like."
It is a question that Ola Medrzycki does not like to contemplate.
She is the Friendship at Home manager for the Senior Friendship Centers in Sarasota County.
Older residents were one of the biggest groups of residents seeking Season of Sharing assistance this past year.
A deluge of inquiries floods her office every day from retirees on fixed incomes - people who worked all their lives, now despondent and in shock over rent increases.
"I was gone one day, and there were 70 voicemail messages on my phone," she said.
One caller that day said their rent was surging from $1,600 to $2,500 a month. Seniors can't keep pace, given the much smaller cost-of-living increases in Social Security.
A number of calls are linked to the summer heat wave and exorbitant electric bills - some as high as $500 in a month, she said. Residents on oxygen were receiving shut-off notices.
But with many seniors paying two-thirds of their income in rent, there's nothing left to cover an unexpected bill.
"It is so expensive," Medrzycki said. "People can't afford to live in this area."
Those with options are moving in with adult children. Others are going back to work.
"I was hoping it was going to get better," she added, "but it's not."
Keeping people housed
Kathleen Cramer, executive director at Turning Points in Bradenton, said the last two years have been "extremely detrimental" for people on fixed income - seniors as well as disabled veterans.
Applications for assistance with rent and utilities soared last year - from 5,111 the previous year to 6,320. Much of that is from fixed-income households that never applied for help before, residents whose rents have in many cases doubled.
This past year, the waiting room at Turning Points is often full by 8 a.m.
"People are getting evicted - even seniors living in houses five, ten plus years who never missed a rent payment," she said.
"We work very hard to keep people housed because there are no units out in the community that are available," she added.
That's where Season of Sharing comes in, as a bridge covering a rent payment or utility bill when households are in a bind. Or, when rare units become available, to take care of the first month's rent to help get people in the door, Cramer said. This is the case not only for seniors but also cashiers at the grocery store, waiters and childcare workers - working families who have been forced to sleep on friends' couches or live in their cars.
She feels optimistic about the number of affordable housing units being proposed and acted on by the City of Bradenton and Manatee County. But for now, she added, Season of Sharing is a key resource that many area nonprofits depend on, making sure families stay sheltered.
"It helps us keep people housed while we're finding long-term solutions," she said.
Debra Jacobs, president and CEO of The Patterson Foundation, has hope for the next round of Season of Sharing.
Its recent record levels of help are a testament to - and made possible by - the community's strong spirit of philanthropy.
"The heartbeat of generosity is vibrant in this area," Jacobs said.
Every gift is meaningful to Season of Sharing said Jacobs, whose foundation donates an additional $100,000 for each $500,000 raised from the community for the fund.
Of the thousands of contributors who donate every year, the vast majority help in small amounts, some for the first time and others as loyal yearly givers.
More than ever, that help is preventing families from sliding into deeper financial, emotional and mental distress.
And at a time when the world is in turmoil, the fund also provides an avenue for givers who want to help, Jacobs added.
"It makes Season of Sharing the place to go, where you can feel good, where you can feel confident because you know you are making a difference," she said.
Roxie Jerde, president and CEO of the Community Foundation, agrees - underscoring the importance of the community to rally around long-term solutions while also not leaving people in crisis behind.
"My hope is that those who have given generously to the levels we've seen recently will do that, if not more," Jerde said. She also invites others who have thought about contributing in the past to reach out this year. Donations go entirely to pay recipients' bill. There are zero administrative fees.
"My hope is that people really understand the crisis that we're in," Jerde said. "This community is only as strong as all of us are."
See this story as it originally appeared on Nov. 5, 2023, in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune here. Story by Saundra Amrhein; photos by Thomas Bender