Give A Christmas 2021: Nonprofit partners change lives for the better year round

The Christmas spirit is at the heart of the missions of the Bucks County Opportunity Council and the Keystone Opportunity Center.

For sure, the two nonprofits partner with The Intelligencer on the annual charitable Give A Christmas campaign, but the good they do the local community extends throughout the year.

“We envision communities where all people can achieve economic security and have opportunities to create their future story,” reads a vision statement from the BCOC.

Keystone Opportunity Center’s mission statement sounds similar notes.

The organization aims to help “community members in need by offering a comprehensive array of social services that educate, encourage and empower them to become self-sufficient.”

The Give A Christmas program is one way the organizations help make their missions reality.

The fund delivers financial assistance to individuals and families in need during the holidays.

It benefits low-income people in Central and Upper Bucks County, as well as Eastern Montgomery County and the North Penn and Indian Valley communities. Assistance provided includes everything from help with buying gifts and groceries, to paying for rent, medicine, bills and utility expenses.

Administered by BCOC in partnership with The Intelligencer (with Keystone getting 10% of the proceeds), the fund is powered by donations from local individuals, families, businesses and religious organizations. Notably, money not dispersed during the holidays is used to support locals in need throughout the year with everything from food and rent to employment assistance.

“The need doesn’t end with the holidays,” says Joseph Cuozzo, director of development at BCOC. “Our work runs throughout the year.”

‘We’re here to help’

With roots stretching back to 1965, Doylestown-based BCOC is the lead anti-poverty agency in Bucks County. The organization’s work centers on reducing poverty, combatting its effects, and promoting economic self-sufficiency. For BCOC’s July 2020 to June 2021 fiscal year, the nonprofit served 57,077 people.

BCOC did so through five main program areas — emergency assistance, economic self-sufficiency education, volunteer income tax assistance, food help, and a weatherization program that reduces home energy consumption and provides health and safety and crisis programing.

“We provide public and private donated food to over 60 food pantries and distribution sites, a senior food box program that reaches over 450 seniors, and Fresh Connect, a free farmer’s market in three locations each week throughout the year,” said Tammy Schoonover, chief program officer at BCOC.

Meanwhile, the Economic Self-Sufficiency program works with low-income locals to increase education and employment in order to free the local folks from government subsidies. “For the 2019-20 fiscal year, 14 families graduated from the ES Program,” said Schoonover. “Their average income at entry was $23,305 and their average income at exit was $46,539.”

An independent auditor of the ES program projected that for every dollar spent on ES families, more than $4.60 is saved on government subsidies. Once they have graduated, less than 17% require additional supports. “As parents do better, children thrive and see a new way of living,” said Cuozzo. “The cycle of generational poverty is broken.”

With the emergency services program, BCOC offers supports like one-time rental assistance to prevent homelessness by securing permanent housing, preventing eviction or stabilize housing; utility assistance to reduce bills or prevent utility shut off; transportation assistance that includes auto repair, gas, inspection and occasionally an initial insurance deposit; food assistance to address needs that cannot be met by food pantry partners; and help to secure employment.

In a recent fiscal year, BCOC’s efforts saved 945 people from eviction, permanently housed 306 people, and enabled 230 households to maintain utility services.

“ES has changed lives and the return on investment in the ES program expands with every graduate who is now off all forms of government assistance, earns a livable wage, has health insurance, lives in safe and affordable housing, and now contributes to the community,” said Schoonover.

BCOC isn’t about to rest on its track record of success, though.

The nonprofit just started a new collaborative project with Habitat for Humanity Bucks County, the YWCA and the Bucks County Housing Group named Serving Bucks Together, the SBT Center.

“The Center is designed to provide case management services to the Central Bucks communities of Warminster, Warrington and others,” Cuozzo explains. “BCOC has hired a bilingual coach to help serve the Spanish-speaking population in the area.”

Additionally, BCOC’s food program continues to expand its service delivery. BCOC recently joined in a collaborative project with others like the United Way of Bucks County to provide food for families in need in the Quakertown School District.

“We’re here,” says Cuozzo, “to help.”

Keystone Opportunity Center ‘a Godsend’

Larry was having a hard time of it.

A senior citizen on a fixed income, the U.S. Navy veteran had no money left over each month after paying essential bills and rent, the latter of which just kept going up as the property he lived in changed hands.

Enter the Keystone Opportunity Center.

The Souderton-based nonprofit lent a helping hand in a variety of ways, including assisting Larry with securing safe, quality housing in a community at a third of the cost he had been paying.

“Keystone has been a Godsend,” says Larry. The organization “saved my life.”

Keystone has been manifesting miracles like that for decades.

The nonprofit’s history stretches back to the 1970s, but Keystone proper was founded in the 1990s through the merging of two organizations, according to the nonprofit.

Serving parts of Montgomery County and Upper Bucks County, Keystone provides help to more than 5,000 people every year. Its outreach includes feeding the hungry, housing the homeless and educating adults so they can live self-sufficient lives.

“Our clients are individuals and families facing poverty, hunger and homeless, and are in need of a hand-up through being provided with somewhere they can call home, or nutritional foods to prevent hunger, or a better level of education to give them every opportunity through improved literacy,” says Malcom Friend, Keystone’s director of resource development.

When it comes to fighting homelessness, Keystone’s work centers on everything from rental assistance and eviction diversion, to providing emergency shelter, rapid rehousing and permanent supportive housing.

“We provide case management across the board to help our families successfully get back on their feet and maintain safe housing,” the organization notes. “We also own/operate over two dozen affordable housing units.”

Furthermore, Keystone Opportunity Center has a food pantry that serves neighbors across the Souderton Area School District who are dealing with food insecurity. Pantry users qualify for assistance based on their income, and are allowed to visit the pantry once per month to receive a three-day emergency supply, along with donated items from local farms, grocers or individuals.

Of late, Keystone has expanded its educational programming to additional in-person locations across Bucks and Montgomery counties.

Classes include English as a Second Language, High School Equivalency, Citizenship, Adult Basic Education, English for College and Career, individual tutoring, and more. Literacy, the completion of schooling, and citizenship are essentials for leading a self-sufficient life, the organization maintains.

Demand for Keystone’s services is growing, making Give A Christmas donations all the more important, said Friend.

“During these uncertain times, as we all navigate the daily challenges created by the pandemic, the clients Keystone serves are likely to be some of the last to bounce-back,” Friend said.

“Broad financial safety nets are no longer available, and the requests for financial assistance from Keystone will soon exceed the resources we have available. So, thank you for stepping in and stepping up to help through the Give A Christmas campaign. It is good to know that you continue to be there year-on-year with your generosity.”

— Chris Ruvo, Special to The Intelligencer

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