PANAMA CITY — The one day it's not too difficult to lift a heavy load for Cindy Mathews is during a take-in day, a day when her shop accepts a voluminous amount of clothing donated by local helping hands for those in need.
Monday was that day at Cindy’s Consignment.
"This community has serviced me for 28 years. I am thankful I am still open," she said. "We are very thankful to the community and we want to do whatever we can."
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Unloading a load or two of spring clothes at the shop Monday was local resident Lauren Presser. She usually purges her closets each season, but donating the clothes for a cause makes it somewhat more rewarding.
“Rebuilding from the storm, everybody has to come in and use that sense of community that we had right afterwards and continue to help each other,” Presser said. “It’s much better to donate to an organization for someone else that may use it than to just letting it go to waste.”
For decades Mathews has welcomed nonprofits in need of career-specific attire and general clothing, to open an account, to which individuals can make clothing donations and designate the revenue for use by those agencies.
But, since Hurricane Michael, the volume has been a lot different, according to Mathews.
"There's several new accounts," she said, later adding, "That's the reason we tried to open so quickly — there was no shopping in the area. It was a sad situation, it was heart wrenching."
Local nonprofits have taken a major hit in donations, both monetary and item. While businesses like Cindy's Consignments have found unique ways to share the burden, the impact of the loss of donors remains a huge challenge.
Panama City Rescue Mission
After losing its clothing store to the storm, Panama City Rescue Mission now provides vouchers through Cindy’s Consignment to clothe the homeless as well as clients who are transitioning back into the workforce upon completion of the addiction recovery program.
But clothing is only one aspect of some challenges the mission is facing post-storm.
"During the hurricane, we lost half of our donors," said Vice President of Programs Rick Briggs, speaking specifically about the addiction and recovery program. "That put us in a situation where we had to figure out how to make the program better and make it more worthy of charging a modest fee with the hope that we would get donors or sponsors that would come along and say they would provide a bed — and those beds will be free."
Over the years, prior to the storm, the program’s clients saw some fluctuation in fees — from free to about $300 a month. However, with fewer people enrolled to sustain services, as of Jan. 1, fees have increased to $1,000 monthly.
The program and staff gained new certifications to improve the intensity and quality of the program, Briggs said. Also, the mission added more treatment options, including outpatient services, and new staff members funded by a CareerSource Gulf Coast grant.
But, as of last week, just two men and 10 women were enrolled.
It's not that people don't need help, Briggs said. He hopes private donors or family members of those who need help will once again start supporting the program.
“We can all relate in that we all have made poor choices, grew up in bad circumstances ... (yet) we had someone to help us out to keep us successful,” Briggs said. “We're just looking for a chance to make it right and they need stabilization — a place to get stabilize and get that chance to make it right.”
Donations may be made online at pcrmission.org/howtohelp.
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The Evers House
The Evers House has remained at capacity since the storm.
"I get at least one phone call daily, five applications a week," said founder Cathy McClellan. "A lot of people who are just plain homeless have been contacting me. There's just not enough room, there needs to be more help."
The women's transitional home, which was established in 2017, lost all three of its homes to the hurricane. While she was able to move the program into a single home a month after the storm, McClellan pointed to the 12-bed decrease and a growing waiting list.
"We just have no beds," she said, noting The Evers House board is currently in discussion about expanding to another house.
The program did not increase fees, instead, it downsized in space, capacity and staff.
"I don't get a lot of donations. It's been a challenge," she said. "I've really considered shutting it down."
However, the faces and feedback of women who have transformed their lives is what keeps her efforts going.
"This kind of program, it's got to be something you have to have a passion for," she said. "The need is huge, and I just feel like that's what I am supposed to be doing."
Donations may be made online at longleaf4you.com/donate.
Being a helping hand
In a post-Hurricane Michael, every cent helps.
“We’ve got people who are giving 50 cents a paycheck, $1 a paycheck,” said Ken McVay, communications director at United Way of Northwest Florida. But “$26 a year is $26 we can use” to fund local programs.
“Any amount doesn’t matter if it’s $1 or $100, all of it gets used within the community ... to help people the best we can,” he added.
Despite sustaining major damage to its headquarters and some challenges with staffing, the organization has not let up on generating donations for more than 47 local agencies, raising $1.3 million specifically for hurricane-related needs. And this past September it kicked off its regular campaign with a goal of raising $1.6 million by the end of the first quarter of this year.
“Ultimately, our board feels like we should be able to get to our campaign goal — it may take a little while longer past our goal time frame,” McVay said. “But we feel we will get to that goal. We’re still encouraging people to give.”
McVay said donations are down, but the organization is optimistic that the campaign will reach its goal with support from big businesses and increased corporate matches with employee paycheck donations.
“The community as a whole has really pitched in to help each other out ... perhaps now more than ever,” he said. “Everyone is going to see, when it’s all said and done, the amount of time and effort and ... financial resources, as well — it’s all going to be greater after the storm than it was before the storm.”
United Way of Northwest Florida continues to accept donations designated to Hurricane Michael recovery and its regular campaign. Make a donation online at unitedwaynwfl.org/invest-in-your-community-give-to-united-way.