Seniors Matter tries to fill funding gap left by United Way

Sunday, August 12, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA – About 20 seniors sat in a circle of armchairs on Friday morning listening attentively to the duo Graceful Accord play the gospel song "You Raise Me Up" at the MU Adult Day Connection.

Some of the volunteers who work with the seniors, however, were not as attentive. A small, black dog named Willy slept on his back while the seniors enjoyed the music. Now 4 years old, he's been a regular companion to seniors at the Day Connection since he was 10 weeks old. He's called "the speed bump" because those with walkers and wheelchairs have to navigate around him. He's sometimes reluctant to move much.

The MU Adult Day Connection serves as a place where seniors and adults who benefit from nursing care and supervision can go during the day. Volunteers serve meals and keep participants active throughout the day. The daytime care allows the seniors' primary caregivers to spend their days at work.

The organization, however, is one of three that stand to lose significant funding from the Heart of Missouri United Way, which announced earlier this year that circumstances would force it to focus on funding programs that help children and education. Meals on Wheels and the Boone County Council on Aging also stand to lose money. The total loss for the three organizations is about $200,000.

Each of those groups is planning new fundraising efforts, and also hope to get a boost from an organization called Seniors Matter, a private, nonprofit, collective resources group that launched in July in response to the United Way's cuts.

Alysia Carey, a junior and a student volunteer at the Day Connection, has been volunteering there since May. 

"I really like the wake-up group. Everyone sits around and exchanges stories," Carey said. "Hearing all their stories and their experiences has been very interesting. I think it helps them to see a new face and be able to interact with people, enjoy their day a little bit more and have some fun." 

The Graceful Accord — Boone Hospital Center nurses Jan Asbury and Karen Haden — played music and sang for the residents as one of their activities on Friday. The duo has been visiting the Day Connection and area nursing homes for about the past five years to play music for people who don't get to hear it often.

"We like helping people who can't get out much. Our goal is to provide a bright spot in their days," Asbury said.

The Day Connection stands to lose $38,000 of United Way funding at the end of 2012, and workers hope that the new Seniors Matter fund will fill that gap.

The organization also receives money from the city of Columbia, Boone County and Medicaid to help fund its budget of more than $300,000. Still, Executive Director Amy Byergo said the group needs to boost its fundraising to compensate for the loss of United Way assistance. The Day Connection serves 51 seniors.

"I had one lady tell me: 'If it were not for this place, my husband would not be here right now,'" said Carolyn Anderson, activity and volunteer coordinator of the Day Connection.

Byergo said that without new sources of money, the organization faces an uncertain future.

"The loss of funding could result in programmatic changes, such as reduction in services that we provided for years, or it could potentially cause our agencies to close their doors," Byergo said.

Columbia Meals on Wheels will lose $47,300, but Executive Director Marcia Walker said the organization had been saving to reduce public funding before the United Way narrowed its focus. Meals on Wheels has its own endowment from volunteers and clients who leave money to the group when they die. Over the years, Meals on Wheels has saved up money thanks to its close relationships with clients.

Meals on Wheels administrators, however, cannot predict how much money the organization will receive from memorials each year, which means it can't include that revenue in its budget. Walker said that the organization is planning another fundraiser and that she has sent letters asking donors to double their contributions. 

Meals on Wheels serves 125 meals a day to senior residents who live at home but cannot prepare their own food. 

Of the United Way money Meals on Wheels is losing, $24,000 was designated by United Way donors to go specifically to Meals on Wheels and not the other United Way programs. 

"If people would give that money directly to us, we would be halfway there," Walker said. "That's what Seniors Matter is trying to do. It's trying to pull those people who already like us and already designated to us, to give it to us personally as an agency or Seniors Matter." 

The Boone County Council on Aging is going to lose $81,000, or 30 percent of its total funding, at the end of 2012.

The council serves 565 low-income seniors in the Boone County area. Its services include information and referrals, volunteer and support and case management. Case management services is organized with other organizations that help low-income seniors who have a lack of support. It also provides friendly visitors for seniors, which decreases depression from isolation, said Executive Director Jessica Macy.

"These volunteers help seniors continue to live independently, by taking seniors to the food pantry or bringing food from the food pantry to seniors," Macy said. "They also help with home maintenance and repair." 

Macy hopes Seniors Matter will help bridge the funding gap, but she also is taking action. The Boone County Council on Aging has received a grant from the Nonprofit Services Center in St. Louis, and it's going to provide a consultant to help raise money. 

"There aren't many options when you lose funding," Macy said. "You can either end the program or find other funding." 

Twenty-five percent of all donations to Senior Matters will go to each of the three organizations, and the remaining 25 percent will be held back to grow. Donations will be tax deductible.

The Heart of Missouri United Way narrowed its focus because low-income children and their families have the greatest needs now, Executive Director Tim Rich said. Rich, however, said that Meals on Wheels and the other senior programs had the opportunity to apply for United Way funding.

"They could have applied for funding if they could have shown how serving seniors had helped to serve low income youth and their families." Rich said. For instance, he said, there might be grandparents who are the primary caregivers for children but also rely on Meals on Wheels. 

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Cecil Caulkins August 12, 2012 | 8:17 a.m.

Columbia's United Way has apparently come up with an idea called "War on Poverty." That's certainly been a roaring success since the days of Lyndon Johnson. Maybe next year they can add "War on Drugs" to their funding mix. When ideology trumps common sense, strange decisions are made.

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