CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Wanda Akers, right, spoke yesterday to Gov. Linda Lingle at the River of Life's Thanksgiving Meal and Celebration, thanking her for all the state has done for her. Akers spoke of the assistance she received in her efforts to obtain a motorized wheelchair.
The River of Life Mission hopes community aid will not dry up
JACK DE FEO, a short, barrel-chested man with blazing eyes under a winged pair of eyebrows, stood outside of the River of Life Mission in Chinatown yesterday afternoon and took a long, satisfied draw on an after-dinner cigarette.
For the last 10 years, De Feo, who introduces himself as Captain Jack, has enjoyed Thanksgiving dinners at the Mission. Yesterday he ate turkey and traded wisecracks with friends.
"I first came here when they were operating out of a hole in the wall," said De Feo. "But the mission has grown and become an essential lifeline for the inhabitants in this area and the surrounding areas. Without the mission, a lot of people would be suffering a lot more than they already are."
Yesterday, River of Life Mission expected to feed Thanksgiving dinner to almost 700 people, about the same as last year. Thanksgiving is when the mission gets the flocks of volunteers, the media attention and even a visit from Gov. Linda Lingle.
But the staff worries about the rest of the year and the 12,000 meals a month it serves to the homeless three times a day, Monday through Friday. There are another 12,000 to 20,000 meals a month to low-income families.
For many charitable organizations, November and December are the major donation months that make or break their budgets. But this year, charities across the country are worried that in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the earthquake in Pakistan, donations to them will be down at the time they need the help the most.
"I've given support after Katrina. But you can't forget the local organizations helping people in your own back yard," said Rann Watumull, president of the mission's board of directors and a vice president at Bank of Hawaii.
River of Life is a nondenominational Christian organization founded in 1985 when peanut butter sandwiches were handed out to anyone on the street. It has an annual budget of "just under $1 million," according to mission General Manager Merrie-Susan Marchant. About 80 percent of that comes from individual donors, and 20 percent comes from grants.
Marchant said, "Fifty percent of our (individual) donations come in November and December. We are down slightly right now, but I honestly don't know what will happen."
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
A queue for the River of Life's Thanksgiving Meal and Celebration formed down North Pauahi Street.
Watumull said that when the tsunami in the Indian Ocean hit last Dec. 26 and people clamored to help, donations to the mission suddenly dropped 50 percent.
"It's natural, human compassion to give when there is a crisis. But every day the needs of the community are still there, and organizations like ours depend on the community to be generous," said Watumull as he watched over swarms of volunteers rushing plates heaped with food from the sweltering kitchen to each diner.
"We don't have a front-page crisis, but the needs are real," said Watumull, pointing through the open door to the line of people stretching down the street, waiting for one of the 42 seats in the dining room.
"Talk to them and you hear the stories. They look at you with these big eyes, and you just need to be there to help them," he said.
A national survey of almost 4,000 charitable organizations released last week found that almost 80 percent believe that the year's natural disasters "will cause end-of-year contributions to remain at or decrease from 2004 levels."
The survey was conducted by GuideStar (www.guidestar.org), which advocates public disclosure from tax-exempt organizations and offers online access to the finances of 1.5 million nonprofits.
GuideStar reported that 38 percent of the survey respondents said that widespread giving to disaster relief would cause contributions to their organizations to drop. Another 40 percent said contributions would stay the same, four percent anticipated an increase and 17 percent did not know.
Watumull said that at this point cash donations are down from last year, but in-kind donations are up. Recently, for example, Lanakila Baptist Academy donated seven pallets of rice, and Hawaii Baptist Academy donated almost a pallet of canned goods.
For Thanksgiving, Hansen Foods donated 60 turkeys, and the Hawai'i Convention Center cooked and carved them. Three shifts of 25 volunteers each are needed. So many volunteers flocked to sign up that that the list was closed by Oct. 20.