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Annual giving series meets a time of increased need

The Day's 13th annual Make a Difference series premieres today, kicking off a season of community generosity when more people than ever are in need.

In response to The Arc Eastern Connecticut's contribution to the 2019 series, a family of three in which the mother was medically unable to work, CEO Kathleen Stauffer in a statement said the community support was "inspiring."

"Folks donated $1,000 in gift cards, sheet sets, pots and pans and more," she said in the statement. "A lot of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities had a better holiday (in 2019) thanks to The Day and to our friends and neighbors who demonstrated tremendous good will."

Amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, however, Denise Tift, director of community outreach, said the needs of the families served by The Arc Eastern Connecticut have changed dramatically. For the family selected for the 2020 campaign, for example, she said the mother has to face the challenges of keeping her two special-needs sons on track with their online learning in addition to financial struggles.

Tift said that technology access and use in particular has been a challenge for their clients.

"Being able to connect to friends and community is vital during these times of quarantining," she said. "Many of the people we serve are considered high risk based on underlying conditions, so isolation becomes that much bigger of a concern — especially for those that live on their own."

Catholic Charities, Diocese of Norwich, last year featured a family of six displaced due to medical debt, and executive assistant Laura Malone said the family received monetary and physical donations ranging from toys and clothing to a new microwave for the house. She said the family also wrote several thank-you letters saying how grateful they were to the Make a Difference campaign and the generosity of the community.

Malone said Catholic Charities has seen an increase in the number of people reaching out to the organization for help this year, noting that basic needs such as food, baby items and assistance with paying rent and utilities are the most requested items. She said both donors and other organizations are giving more gift cards this year rather than physical items like toys.

"We know that (COVID-19) has affected everyone, and a lot of people are placed in a situation they never thought they would be in, so we are humbled to have people reach out to us to see how they can help their neighbors in need by making donations," she said.

The Jonnycake Center of Westerly, which joined the Make a Difference campaign last year, also is seeing increased need this year, according to Matt Levy, social media and marketing manager.

He said that while Jonnycake has received a lot of support from community members and foundations, it's also trying to overcome lost fundraising revenue as a result of the pandemic. The center hasn't been able to host any fundraising events since March, and the three-month closure of its thrift store in the spring resulted in the loss of about $200,000 in revenue. The center also has had to modify its Adopt-a-Family program, switching to a drive-thru gift card distribution to avoid the crowds normally required to process the food and toy donations.

"I've personally observed an increase in the number of folks messaging Jonnycake on Facebook to ask about our pantry and social services, saying they've never needed help in this way before, but they're in an unfamiliar situation now and don't know where to turn," Levy said. "It is heartbreaking to see, but that is why our organization exists."

This year's Make a Difference compacts will run daily at the bottom of the front page and online at theday.com.

a.hutchinson@theday.com

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