By Debbie Kelley Feb 8, 2022
Colorado Springs residents have a history of being generous with donating their money and time to charitable causes, but no one expected the response from the community to this season’s Empty Stocking Fund, an annual project of Gazette Charities Foundation and El Pomar Foundation.
Between Thanksgiving and Jan. 21, local individuals, families, businesses, organizations and foundations contributed a record $1,727,433 to benefit the work of 20 health and human service agencies in El Paso and Teller counties.
“I’m completely amazed — we were committed to breaking last year’s record, but I didn’t realize we’d break it by this much,” said Deb Mahan, executive director of Gazette Charities Foundation, the charitable arm of The Gazette newspaper.
The 2020 campaign brought in $1.5 million, the largest amount before this year’s drive.
The 2021 fundraiser attracted fewer donors — 1,926 in total, compared with 2,402 in 2020 — but those who opened their wallets gave more than previous years.
The funds were announced at a celebration held Tuesday night at the Penrose House for partners, donors and nonprofit organizations.
“Because of COVID, people in this community are so aware of how great the need is and how these 20 agencies were literally the groups at the front lines of responding to people’s needs,” Mahan said.
“In the first year of the pandemic, there was a lot of government funding, and as we come out of the pandemic, these agencies need the help to continue to respond to the ongoing need.”
For example, more people are seeking mental services and are sicker than pre-pandemic, said Kirk Woundy, associate executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Colorado Springs.
“There’s just a lot more for people to worry about these days than a few years ago, and the weight of that over time can be a lot to handle,” he said.
“People who had mental health challenges before these last couple of years continue to struggle with these unexpected disruptions in life, and in some cases to their work or their social networks, and with losing loved ones to COVID or being worried about sickness or experiencing sickness within their families.”
NAMI became a beneficiary of the Empty Stocking Fund in 2020 and will spend this year’s proceeds on providing free virtual and in-person mental health education programs and support groups, Woundy said.
An equitable algorithm based on agency size, budget and overall impact determines the amount of funds each nonprofit receives, Mahan said.
The money is not specific and can be applied to general operating funds, which means Care and Share Food Bank of Southern Colorado has been able to rely on the funding in its budget, said Lynne Telford, president and CEO of Care and Share Food Bank of Southern Colorado.
The agency, which supplies food to local pantries, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, churches and other distributors, has been an Empty Stocking Fund recipient since the program began in 1984.
“It’s a wonderful thing we can count on year after year, and lately it’s been growing,” Telford said. “We can plan to feed more people as we know that money is coming.”
And it’s evident people are still working to recover from losses of jobs and wages, depletion of savings, incurred debt and increased costs of living, she said.
“It’s really an intricate web of services and caring to help people get through the hard times, and it takes all kinds of service providers and donors to make it possible.”
Empty Stocking Fund contributions provide bus passes, meals and take-home food, school supplies, clothing, GED tests, computers, utilities and rent payments, medical prescriptions, career-readiness workshops, counseling sessions, advocacy for victims of domestic violence, programs for children with developmental disabilities, cleanup kits for homeless people, transportation for seniors, veterans’ programs and other assistance.
“We love the Empty Stocking Fund because it gives the community an easy way for everybody to be a philanthropist,” Telford said.
El Pomar Foundation matched $1 of every $3 donated, up to $200,000, and the Bruni Foundation provided matching funds of $1 to every $10 donated, up to $70,000.
Expenses and overhead costs of running the campaign are paid for by partner agencies, which include ADD STAFF, Pikes Peak Community Foundation, El Pomar Foundation and the Anschutz Foundation.
“So, every single dollar raised goes right to the agencies,” Mahan said.
The Empty Stocking Fund started 38 years ago with a story in The Gazette about the newspaper wanting to help fill Christmas stockings with toys and other gifts to give away. That first effort raised $40,000. It continued with five original agencies and has added more as the contributions have increased.
Based on this season’s participation, Mahan said it’s obvious the community trusts the campaign to “be one place they can go and know their dollars will grow and have a wide impact in the community.”
The cooperative impact of the 20 beneficiary agencies is estimated to be 350,000 individuals or families a year, she said.