Local nonprofits, volunteers give back in tough economy

A recent headline in the U.S. Business category on MSNBC.com read: “More women going from jobless to topless.” The article implies a certain desperation in the current U.S. economy. The idiom goes, “desperate times call for desperate measures,” and perhaps those measures are becoming more acceptable as they become more widespread.

Professor John Sorrentino of the economics department called the crisis “fairly serious” and explained it will take time to resolve it.

The economic plague does not stop at the banks or the stock market. Students are feeling the burden of scarcity. Craigslist is practically barren when it comes to occupational opportunities; textbooks are no longer academic keepsakes but potential sales; loans seem more like risks than saviors when considering whether fall semester registration is possible.

The aforementioned article reminds Americans of the kind of trouble they face. Expressions of fear and desperation have become commonplace when discussing the recession. Even though economic solutions occupied a huge portion of the candidates’ platforms in November’s election, recovery does not seem to have reached most corners of the nation.

Some individuals and groups have taken it upon themselves to generate their own economic (and spiritual) sustainability. They remove their dependence on federal bonuses and trickle-down economics by participating in or coordinating nonprofit organizations that work to build up people and their communities. They work outside the government as cooperative structures based on volunteers and community support.

“The part I like the most [about the new administration] is the investment in infrastructures and education,” Sorrentino said.

These institutions may present a positive focal point for the country when considering viable solutions to the problem.

Joe Franchi, a volunteer with Uhuru, gets ready to put up a rug for display (Roman Krivitsky/TTN).

The Need
Causing rampant unemployment, failing markets and scarcity of resources, the recession has been hardest on those who already struggle. Programs seeking to eliminate these disparities and promote comprehensive economic development realize the increasing need for resources that are not only cheap and accessible but also healthy and useful.

Since food is first and foremost when it comes to survival, food banks and soup kitchens provide meals for those struggling with poverty and hunger. Philabundance is “the region’s largest hunger relief organization,” aiming to help low-income families. The organization collects donations from food industries and individuals, serving 600 neighborhoods through farmers markets, kitchens, neighborhood distribution centers and shelters.

Food banks have been historically owned and supported by their communities, Philabundance Director Bill Clark said.

“They’re a safety net for those struggling to put food on the table,” he said, adding that the number of people struggling has reached epidemic proportions recently, but the program provides a sense that the community is there for them. “It reduces the suffering [and] provides a link to greater society.”

Mahbubur R. Meenar, assistant director of Geographic Information Systems Operations and Research at Temple’s Center for Sustainable Communities, is also an adjunct professor in the department of community and regional planning at Ambler.

Meenar and other Temple affiliates in the Center for Sustainable Communities have joined forces with Philabundance to make the latter’s program more efficient, calling it the “Philadelphia Metro Area Hunger Relief and Community Food Access Study.”

GIS will help Philabundance identify areas of need more accurately, Meenar said.

The Function
One does not have to necessarily be “in need” to see the practicality of a nonprofit organization. There is a certain element to community-oriented programs that just makes sense.

“Part of the recovery program deals with renewable energy, energy efficiency and material efficiency we can foster at this time,” Sorrentino said.

He went on to call the situation a “win-win,” involving less impact and long-term solutions.

Neighborhood Bike Works began as a program of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia and separated as an independent nonprofit almost 10 years ago. Based in West Philly, the program operates as a way to educate the urban youth on cycling and increase ridership.

“NBW clearly has a place in a depressed economy because we represent a cheap way to get around,” Executive Director Andy Dyson said. “Also, having healthy youth to begin with is great for the economy in that society doesn’t end up paying for the chronic diseases that result from people being overweight.”

The Bike Church, located at 3916 Locust Walk on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus, may be the most recognizable institution of NBW. This location has many donated bikes for sale. There are also adult and youth classes on building, repairing and maintaining a bicycle.

Dyson said a bicycle is practical, especially in a city where traffic congestion is routine. Cars can be a hassle and expensive. Even the wealthy can find use in a nonprofit like NBW.

“I’d still bike if I was making a million bucks, and I hope that other people will use bikes because of the environmental benefits,” Dyson said.

Thrift store shopping is frequently practiced by Temple students, hipsters and fashionistas alike.

Unfortunately, the city brings with it a pretension, and most used-clothing shops will fall under the euphemism “vintage boutique,” meaning retailers can raise prices on clothes that were sold to them cheaply or even donated.

This is not the case with Philadelphia AIDS Thrift on 514 Bainbridge St. About three years old, the nonprofit store donates an average of $2,000 every month to several of the AIDS fundraisers in Philly. The store receives donations from Bucks County, as well as New Jersey.

“People make a real effort,” said Tom Brenan, store manager.

The store is “pretty serious” about recycling, so “nothing gets thrown away.”

Brenan recognizes the simultaneous necessity and trendiness that exists in the AIDS Thrift. Some people go there “because that’s what they can afford,” but there are also typically younger shoppers who look to find something not in chain retail stores.

“We have punks next to grandmothers,” Brenan said.

The Message
The windows on the 1220 Spruce St. storefront read: “Give back to the people, not the banks and Wall Street!”

Developed by Uhuru Furniture and Collectibles in Center City, the ongoing sale campaign started before the turn of 2009. The message behind this sale points a finger at corporate America as the culprit for widespread disparities, specifically within the African-American community.

Manager Ruby Gittelsohn claims the government stimulus packages have only provided the banks with funds, which may never find their way to the surrounding community.

“[Banks] don’t create value, they steal value,” she said. “The resources shouldn’t go to the richest.”

“Uhuru Furniture is giving back to the people by making furniture affordable.”

Profits from the store go to the African People’s Education and Defense fund, which promotes sustainable economic development in African communities both locally and abroad.

Kristy Schneider, a Temple alumna, works at Uhuru.

In September 2006, she founded the Temple chapter of the Uhuru movement on campus, but membership never reached more than 10 people.

Despite the minor fallback, Schneider maintains a passionate outlook on her role as an activist and ally for African communities.

“I felt like I knew that I needed to work on issues that related to Africa and African people.”

Uhuru employee Lisa Burges sees the ongoing sale as ways to “give back to people who have supported us.”

The Uhuru movement is based across the country, working on setting up self-determined economic development projects like licensed community kitchens, recording studios and community gardens. These institutions strive to provide spaces for those underprivileged by the current system and allow them to create their own jobs.

Burges claimed that while other businesses were tanking with the failing economy, business Uhuru showed a considerable increase in 2008.

The Next Step
Nonprofits have opened an endless number of spaces for members of the community to fill. People work for people, instead of money. That said, there are a number of ways one can participate or support a nonprofit.

Monetary support would be the obvious one. Gittelsohn describes Uhuru Furniture, for example, as “perfect for students, from a shopper’s point of view.” Or, Temple students could visit the Bike Church to find a better way around the city or stop at the AIDS Thrift to pick out new earrings.

Donating can be just as helpful as buying. Though Sorrentino might even consider the latter as the chicken that has to come before the egg, “people have to create things of value for some reasonable reward.”

In other words, somebody had to buy it before he or she could donate it.

There is also continuous demand for volunteers.

“Without volunteers, we wouldn’t be anywhere near where we are now,” Brenan said.

The AIDS Thrift first functioned solely on a volunteer basis.

Student volunteers have proved vital to NBW, putting in time as repairmen or class facilitators.
Philabundance is also looking for college students to contribute volunteer hours or facilitate a food drive on campus.

A majority of Uhuru’s volunteers are Temple students. They can volunteer at the store, in grassroots marketing or even at big events such as EarthFest April 18 at Clark Park, which will host a flea market, farmers market, speakers, performers and several workshops.

Clark sees a trend toward this kind of work: “More graduates are looking to work for more nonprofits.”
He understands that more young people want to “make a real difference.”

Gittelsohn sees value in doing something internally satisfying.

“So many people work at jobs, and they hate their jobs,” she said.

She sees Uhuru as an opportunity to “contribute to genuine change and economic development, not at the expense of the African community.”

Sarah Sanders can be reached at sarah.sanders@temple.edu.

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