Virginia Stephens never has a bad day at the Eldercare Center. Even when she’s not in the best of moods, she makes sure to put on her happy face before going in.
Stephens suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease and has gone to Eldercare, Columbia’s only state-licensed day care center for adults, off and on for roughly two years. Her husband, Gene Stephens, said she loves to sing “Amazing Grace” and other favorites with friends, and she enjoys lively conversation with all the people there.
“When someone new comes in, they’ll sit them by Virginia because she makes them feel welcome,” Gene Stephens said.
Eldercare is one of 33 agencies operating 48 programs to which the city of Columbia gave money in fiscal 2005. It received $30,000 of the $847,350 the city allocated for social services. In fiscal 2006, which begins today, it will distribute another $868,650; $30,750 of that will go to Eldercare.
The center would be in trouble without city money, Eldercare Director Tish Thomas said.
“I’m not sure we’d be able to stay in business,” Thomas said.
For 30 years, the city of Columbia has spent rising amounts of general revenue money for social services. It funds programs that help people get necessities such as food, clothing and school supplies; provide shelter and protection from abusive partners; offer counseling for a range of problems; and give children with disabilities, diabetes or other challenges a place to go and things to do.
Although Columbia isn’t alone in supporting social services, it is unusual in that it spends so much general revenue money on them. Comparable cities in Missouri tend to rely more on federal Community Development Block Grants to support service agencies.
Columbia in fiscal 2005 spent $52,000 of its $1 million block grant on local service agencies, and its budget for 2006 gives more than $100,000.
It’s the general revenue money, however, that means so much. Without Columbia’s contribution, Eldercare would be unable to serve its capacity of 16 and would have to turn people away, Thomas said. The public money goes toward scholarships for people who can’t afford the normal fees and lack Medicaid.
Forty-six percent of Eldercare’s budget comes from the city of Columbia, the Columbia Area United Way and the Central Missouri Area Agency on Aging, Thomas said. Boone County also chips in a couple of thousand dollars a year.
Eldercare is far from alone in its reliance on city support. Dozens of agencies seek and appreciate the money.
The Voluntary Action Center “would not exist without city funding,” said Cindy Mustard, executive director of the agency that seems to have a hand in nearly every Columbia program reaching out to the disadvantaged. The center has received annual grants from the city since 1976, a year after the city began funding social services.
In 2005, the Voluntary Action Center received $63,000 for general programs and $4,000 for essential transportation. It used some of the latter to give out more than 600 bus passes in June.
But the center touches Columbia in many ways. Most recently, it took a prominent role in helping Hurricane Katrina evacuees find their way to Columbia. It sponsors the annual Christmas basket program, coordinates citywide recruitment of volunteers, serves summer lunches to children in the park and pays for medicine, car repairs, fuel and summer school. It is the county’s leading information and referral agency for people who need help.
Tonia Turner knows firsthand what the agency can do. She went there for help getting free school supplies and discounted shoes for her children. The Voluntary Action Center hands out vouchers redeemable for school supplies at two churches, administrative assistant Ellie Grace said. It refers people to The Wardrobe, where they can get free clothes and pay $3 for a coupon that gets them a pair of shoes from Payless ShoeSource.
The center also sponsors Christmas in July, a picnic for low-income people that celebrated its 14th anniversary this summer at Missouri United Methodist Church. So many attended the picnic this year that the dinner line spilled out of the church and into the parking lot. Families, the homeless and others waited to fill their plates with fried chicken, salad, baked beans and cookies.
Mustard had hoped to serve roughly 300 people that day, but she knew there would be more when they went through 400 pieces of chicken in half an hour. Before the event ended, 400 people were fed.
That “most definitely was a record,” Grace said.
Elizabeth Wilson, a board member at the center and a clinical instructor in MU’s School of Social Work, said the record was bittersweet. She’s noticing a “never ending supply of need.”
“It’s great that we got the word out about hosting the event, but it’s also sad that there’s such a need in the community that families are having such a hard time financially and need the support,” she said.
The city’s philosophy
City Manager Ray Beck said social services will continue to be a budget priority because it makes the community better. Beck advocates increasing social services spending by 2 percent to 3 percent per year. His rationale is simple.
“There are certainly people in every community that have basic needs they can’t fulfill,” he said. Columbia strives to be “a full-service city” and this funding is a way to boost the community’s welfare, he said.
Phil Steinhaus, director of the Office of Community Services, said Columbia is a progressive city that understands that social services meet critical needs.
“I think there has been a general feeling that this is a good expenditure of public funds and a good investment in our community,” he said.
The city funds programs that are designed to bring out the best in people who face risks or barriers to success, Steinhaus said.
Although city officials are committed to doling out dollars, they don’t do so without a thorough screening process. The Boone County Community Services Advisory Commission each year reviews agencies’ applications for city and county grants and makes recommendations to the Columbia City Council and the Boone County Commission on how to distribute their social services money.
Member Susan Christy said the presence of the commission says a lot about her community, demonstrating that it cares enough to make sure “the needs of the weakest Columbians are met.”
A stable presence
Dorothy Cantrell and Gayle Golson laughed and chatted as they rode together on a summer Tuesday, the only two passengers on Tom Biesemeyer’s OATS bus. They’d just been to Wal-Mart, where they did a little shopping, and now they were talking over a background of radio jazz about construction in their neighborhood and late-night noise near their homes.
OATS provides transportation for a range of people who need help getting where they need to go. It’s been receiving city money for about the past 12 years, Executive Director Jack Heusted said. The agency serves 15 counties; Boone is the largest among them.
OATS runs four days a week, devoting two days to grocery shopping and two to doctors’ appointments. It runs about 12 vehicles every day.
Heusted said OATS is key to its clients’ independence. Without city money, it would have to reduce its hours.
“A lot of people, especially seniors, are staying at home on any given day because there’s not adequate or affordable transportation,” he said.
OATS is more than a ride. Golson and Cantrell enjoy the opportunity to socialize, and both say the drivers are one of their favorite things about the service. They’re funny and conversational, Golson said. Biesemeyer likes to tote clients’ groceries to their doors and help them inside.
OATS, like the Voluntary Action Center, is among several agencies that have received city money for more than a decade. The annual grants lend stability to organizations that people rely upon.
Meals on Wheels is another example. The city in 2005 provided $47,000 to the food-delivery service, nearly 20 percent of its budget. The money is important to a group that must raise about 30 percent of its own budget.
“If we didn’t get city funding, we would have to raise about 50 percent of our budget,” Executive Director Marcia Walker said. “That would make it much tougher.”
Owen Jackson has been volunteering at Meals on Wheels for about four years. His 30-minute route has become habit.
“I kind of drive it unconsciously,” he said.
Jackson delivers meals on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and he likes to pay attention to the details. He places meals for a blind client in a plastic bag with handles. He takes the time to check on people.
“If I go up and no one answers and the door is locked, I go back and call with my cell phone,” he said. Drivers have a delivery list that includes clients’ phone numbers so they can reach them if necessary.
City funding also goes to the offender evaluation program at Reality House. It received $15,000 in 2005. Reality House provides substance abuse and detoxification treatment, and it serves as a halfway house. Its offender evaluation program is “a last-ditch effort” for the courts to keep young, first-time offenders out of prison altogether, education director Joel Putnam said. City money pays for one person per month to participate in the program.
The city support means something to Putnam.
“If the city didn’t validate this amount of money for this program, it would tell us that it’s not valued and we don’t need it,” Putnam said.
The Family Counseling Center of Missouri received $64,000 for three programs in fiscal 2005 and will get another $65,000 this year. The agency treats drug abuse and alcoholism and provides counseling for those with low incomes.
“If they don’t have insurance and money options are limited, we try to serve that gap,” Tacker said.
City money represents about 20 percent of the Family Counseling Center’s budget. The city grant allows the center to serve about 270 people it otherwise could not, Tacker said.
Mara fled to The Shelter in Columbia after her estranged husband threatened the lives of her and her family. She and her three children arrived expecting little more than a roof over their heads and enough food to get by. What they got was much more.
“They really gave me a sense of being a person again,” she said. “I got food, clothes, emotional and psychological support.”
The Shelter helped Mara and her children cope with the violence they had suffered. It made them feel safe, and it gave Mara the confidence to know she was making the right decision. After living at The Shelter for about two months, the staff helped Mara find a place to live. Learning she had found a home was one the best moments in her life.
“Everyone rallied around me,” said Mara, who’s now committed to returning the favor. She’s been donating clothing and food to The Shelter and plans to get involved in fundraising and lobbying.
“I am truly indebted to them,” she said.
In 2004, The Shelter served about 830 people through its resident and non-resident services; its hot line served 2,483. A city contribution of $61,000 to Comprehensive Human Services, The Shelter’s parent organization, allowed 25 people to sleep there for a month in fiscal 2005. It also paid for 427 hours of advocacy services.
Executive Director Leigh Voltmer said city funding is important even in philanthropically progressive communities like Columbia because demand outpaces supply. She also said Columbia’s past plays a role in its future.
“Columbia’s forefathers and mothers had the right idea,” she said. “If you look at it retrospectively, the social services that are provided are making a difference in the long-term health of the community.