2020 Give A Christmas donations break annual record

Bucks and Montgomery County stepped up big time.

With community members facing economic plight on a huge scale due to fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, generous locals donated a record amount to The Intelligencer’s 2020 Give A Christmas campaign, organizers said.

Individuals, businesses, families, houses of worship and other organizations stepped up like never before, giving a total of $261,074 as of press time. That smashed the campaign’s goal of $140,000.

“I’ve been with the Bucks County Opportunity Council for 20 years and I’ve never seen Give A Christmas raise this much money,” said Erin A. Lukoss, CEO/executive director of BCOC, which administers the campaign in partnership with The Intelligencer. “We’re immensely thankful to everyone who contributed to make this year’s campaign such a success.”

Joseph Cuozzo, director of development at BCOC, noted that the organization will continue to accept more donations for Give A Christmas throughout the year. The campaign typically sees most donations between Thanksgiving and Christmas, with the giving often wrapping up by Martin Luther King Day.

“This year, during a pandemic, we saw such extreme generosity and concern for the community members of Bucks County who were struggling to make ends meet,” Cuozzo said. “The Give A Christmas donors showed Bucks County what true community is, taking care of one another in times of distress and hardship. We cannot thank the donors enough for their kindness. They truly made an impact on the lives of many.”

“I’m overwhelmed with the support of all of our readers,” Executive Editor Shane Fitzgerald said. “The Bucks and Montgomery county communities really stepped up when they were most needed. Our eternal thanks to the Bucks County Opportunity Council and the Levittown-Bristol Kiwanis Club for their tireless efforts in our partnership and facilitating helping so many people.”

Two donations were especially sizable. The Francis J. Raab Foundation gave $25,000. Local philanthropists Gene and Marlene Epstein donated $50,000 as part of a matching pledge. The Epsteins said they’d match every donation of $500 or more (made over a certain period of time) up to $50,000. In response to that, more than $100,000 in donations came in.

“A special thank you to the Gene & Marlene Epstein Humanitarian Fund and the Francis J. Raab Foundation for their substantial donations,” Cuozzo said. “These donations, combined with the individual gifts, pushed us to a record high for the fund. BCOC will work hard to use the funds to meet the needs of the community throughout the year to come.”

Give A Christmas launched in 1988. It’s raised north of $3 million over the years. The BCOC shares 10% of the proceeds with the nonprofit Souderton-based Keystone Opportunity Center.

The fund provides financial assistance to individuals and families in need during the holidays. Money not dispersed during the holidays is used to support locals in need throughout the year.

Benefiting low-income people in Central and Upper Bucks County, as well as Eastern Montgomery County and the North Penn and Indian Valley communities, the fund provides a variety of assistance. That includes everything from help with buying gifts and groceries, to paying rent, medicine bills and utility expenses.

“When we had the 30th anniversary of Give A Christmas, we raised just over $140,000,” Cuozzo said. “We have surpassed that significantly this year. Thank you, Bucks County.”

2020 Fitzgerald: Readers go above and beyond with Give A Christmas generosity

Dear Readers, you really know how to Give A Christmas.

Thank you.

On this Christmas Day, we want to celebrate your generosity, your kindness and your heartfelt donations that come at a time when so many people are in need like they’ve never been before.

This is the 63rd year of Give A Christmas for the Bucks County Courier Times and the 33rd year for The Intelligencer. It’s safe to say that our readers have completely outdone themselves in this most tumultuous of years.

When our partners at the Bucks County Opportunity Council (The Intelligencer) and the Levittown-Bristol Kiwanis Club (Courier Times) got together with us, we honestly didn’t know what to expect.

We had an inkling it might be a pretty good year because it seemed like the giving trend was up for many of the local nonprofits during this horrible pandemic. We weren’t about to take that for granted because if 2020 has shown us anything, it’s that what is expected isn’t necessarily how it’s going to turn out.

We decided to keep our goals the same as last year ($120,000 for the Courier, $140,000 for The Intelligencer) based on recent trends the past few years, hoping that we would be able to reach them.

With donations being accepted for another 2½ weeks, it’s likely we are going to surpass $200,000 in both papers (insert mind-blowing emoji here). As of Tuesday afternoon, Intelligencer readers had donated nearly $181,000, and Courier Times readers more than $151,000. That does not include another $50,000 presented to each fund this week — more on that below.

In scrolling on our websites through the list of contributors for The Intelligencer and the Courier Times, it was touching to see the notes left behind in tribute to loved ones or in appreciation to the good others are doing. It’s very personal to make such a meaningful donation, whether it’s $5 or $50,000.So many of you come back year after year and just make it part of your Christmas To-Do List.

The totals include $25,000 from the Francis J. Raab Foundation, led by David Creamer. And the totals also account for $104,527 that came in response to a matching pledge from local philanthropists Gene and Marlene Epstein, who committed to matching every donation of $500 or more through Dec. 16, up to $50,000 a piece for both funds.

Creamer’s Francis J. Raab Foundation is a grant-making organization that benefits veterans and people struggling under difficult circumstances. The foundation annually makes a sizable donation to The Intelligencer’s Give A Christmas.

“I do a lot of research into the causes and organizations we consider supporting, and the good news about Give A Christmas and the Bucks County Opportunity Council is that the money is really being used to help people locally,” Creamer recently told correspondent Chris Ruvo.

Every donation makes a difference, big and small. But I am going to give a big shout-out to Gene and Marlene Epstein and their leadership. They challenged contributors to give a little more than maybe they would have by setting the bar the Epsteins would match at $500. The response, honestly, has left me breathless.

Gene wrote me on Dec. 11: “You have no idea how thrilled I am seeing people and companies sending in their checks to meet our challenge. We all have to chip in to help those that need it the most or else what good are we? Thank you and all involved.”

At the end of every email Gene Epstein sends, he includes the quote, “Ask yourself daily ‘What can I do to make someone’s life better today?’ ”

Gene comes from humble beginnings and made his money in the car business. Even when his family wasn’t wealthy, they believed in the spirit of giving and reaching out to those less fortunate.

I’ve received emails from Gene at 3 a.m. with an idea that he thinks might better our community in some way, shape or form. This isn’t a one-and-done show of leadership. He has come to live this 24/7/365, determined to leave the world a better place than he found it.

He and Marlene know they can’t do it alone and want to bring all of us along for the joyous ride they are on by doing better by others.

Our news organizations are humbled the Epsteins and the Creamers and all of you have trusted us and our partners at the Bucks County Opportunity Council, the Levittown-Bristol Kiwanis Club and the Keystone Opportuntiy Center to distribute this significant amount of charity.

This remains a significant time of need, and we still have a long stretch of road to recover from the effects of the pandemic. The Bucks County Opportunity Council, the Levittown-Bristol Kiwanis Club and Keystone do work year round to help the community that significantly bolsters people in need. Money raised beyond the Christmas season goes into programs that help those efforts.

Plenty of time remains to give. Details are on Page A2 in our print products and on our websites for the Courier Times and The Intelligencer.

Again, thanks to our readers this year. You’ve really outdone yourselves. Be proud of what your are accomplishing as a community. We need more random acts of kindness than ever before.

Shane Fitzgerald is Executive Editor of the Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer and is the state editor for the 14 Pennsylvania publications in the USA Today Network. Email: sfitzgerald@couriertimes.com or sfitzgerald@theintell.com.

 

2020 Give A Christmas enters home stretch as donations exceed goal

2020 has been a difficult year for most everyone, but some have experienced particular pain and hardship.

Like the Bucks County mother whose son was afflicted by multiple seizures in January. It took visits to multiple hospitals to determine he had a brain tumor. What followed was perilous surgery and follow-up therapy, conducted at health facilities amid the COVID-19 pandemic, that caused the mother to miss work. That job, with its time demands, ultimately became untenable, given her need to care for her son and her other children.

The hard-working woman ultimately found another position, but the hours and pay both were less. The diminished earnings, along with the onus of medical bills and paying for life’s essentials like food and shelter, had the household budget running on fumes.

As Christmas season commenced, it was clear finding the money necessary to put gifts beneath the tree would be tough. That is, until the mother applied for assistance from The Intelligencer’s Give A Christmas fund, which provided the family with gift cards to purchase holiday presents.

“Receiving some assistance for Christmas helps us out a lot,” the woman said. “It allows us to make Christmas more special than what we could do on our own. We’ve been through a lot this year.”

Since 1988, Give A Christmas has helped families in similar financially tight situations. Over the 32 seasons the program has operated generous families, individuals, businesses, houses of worship and other organizations have donated more than $3 million to support the campaign.

With Christmas less than a week away, this year’s campaign is nearing its conclusion, making now the time to donate.

“Due to the hardship caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a large increase in need not just for Give A Christmas assistance but for all of the emergency services that we provide,” said Joseph Cuozzo, director of development at the Doylestown-headquartered nonprofit Bucks County Opportunity Council.

The Opportunity Council administers Give A Christmas in partnership with The Intelligencer. Ten percent of the proceeds are shared with the Souderton-based assistance-focused nonprofit Keystone Opportunity Center. The fund provides financial assistance to individuals and families in need during the holidays. Money not dispersed during the holidays is used to support locals in need throughout the year.

Benefiting low-income people in Central and Upper Bucks County, as well as Eastern Montgomery County and the North Penn and Indian Valley communities, Give A Christmas delivers a variety of assistance. That includes everything from help with buying gifts and groceries, to paying rent, medicine bills and utility expenses.

This year, the community has stepped up in a big way to meet the increased demand for assistance, organizers said. The goal of $140,000 has already been surpassed. As of press time, the community had donated a total of about $189,000.

That includes $25,000 from the Francis J. Raab Foundation. It accounts for $104,527 that came in response to a matching pledge from local philanthropist Gene Epstein, who committed to matching every donation of $500 or more (made over a certain period) up to $50,000. Organizers said the $189,000 doesn’t include Epstein’s match, so another $50,000 is expected to be on the way.

“In the last five years, Give A Christmas has never received a matching gift this high,” said Cuozzo. “It is extraordinary. We have had existing donors increase their giving, as well as new donors meet that $500 or more threshold. We can’t say thank you enough to everyone who has donated, regardless of amount.”

The money, of course, goes directly to support people in need. And that need is most definitely real.

“This assistance will give my children a Christmas as we are unable to due to layoffs,” one recipient said. “We are forever grateful.”

“I’ve been out of work since March because of COVID-19,” said another. “Give A Christmas will help to put a little something under the tree.”

Another family lost their house when the landlord sold the property. It took 11 months to be able to move and stay in the same school district for the children.

“Along with my job being closed for three months due to COVID, it has been an extremely difficult year,” a parent from the family said. “We’re pulling through, slowly but surely. The Give A Christmas assistance will allow my kids to have a Christmas of things they may have wanted but we could not get them, with us as the parents continuing to pay bills, rent and car payment.”

While the holiday season will soon end, the need among community members will not, given the continued economic challenges related to COVID-19 that lie ahead. Help organizations like the BCOC and Keystone Opportunity Center help those who need it most. There’s still time to donate. Do so now.

2020 Give A Christmas enters home stretch; time to donate is now

Now is the time to make a difference.

With less than two weeks to go to Christmas, The Intelligencer’s Give A Christmas campaign is entering the home stretch. The charitable campaign remains short of the $140,000 seasonal goal, but generous individuals, families, businesses and other organizations can change that by stepping up to donate now.

“We’re ahead of last year’s pace, but we still have a ways to go and we’re encouraging anyone who can to contribute now,” said Joseph Cuozzo, director of development at the Doylestownhead-quartered Bucks County Opportunity Council (BCOC), which administers Give A Christmas in partnership with The Intelligencer.

Amid the financial hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s particular need for the support that Give A Christmas provides in 2020.

“With many families still in need, some for the first time in their lives, Give A Christmas gives you an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of our struggling neighbors here in Bucks County,” said Tammy B. Schoonover, chief program officer at BCOC. “100% of the Give A Christmas contributions go to direct financial assistance to low-income Bucks County residents. Whether it is $5 or $500, the money is used to make the holiday season a little brighter.”

Concerning Give A Christmas, BCOC shares 10% of the proceeds with the Souderton-based nonprofit Keystone Opportunity Center. Funds raised through the campaign provide financial assistance to individuals and families in need during the holidays. Money not dispersed during the holidays is used to support struggling locals throughout the year.

Benefiting low-income people in Central and Upper Bucks County, as well as Eastern Montgomery County and the North Penn and Indian Valley communities, the fund provides a variety of assistance. That includes everything from help with buying gifts and groceries, to paying rent, medicine bills and utility expenses.

“It also helps low-income people working toward self-sufficiency by assisting with education expenses, car repair, childcare payments and more,” said Schoonover.

Anticipating that COVD-caused economic hardships would drive a spike in demand for assistance this holiday season, BCOC started the Give A Christmas initiative two weeks earlier than normal this year. The demand has indeed been strong as the pandemic forces households into painful situations.

For instance, some parents have had to stop working in order to be home with young children who are attending school virtually and can’t be left alone, thus causing income to dry up. Meanwhile, some parents have been missing work because their employers have had to shut down for a couple weeks at a time due to what Schoonover described as COVID outbreaks.

“By the time the parents seek unemployment compensation, they are returning back to work — left to recover from the loss of income,” she said.

Thanks to generous area residents and businesses, Give A Christmas had raised about $129,000 so far this holiday season as of press time.

The tally, which adds to the more than $3 million donated since the campaign began 32 years ago, was helped along significantly by a matching donation pledge from Bucks County philanthropist Gene Epstein.

Still, need remains, and the time to help is dwindling. Don’t let it pass by without doing your part.

2020: Generous donors make Give A Christmas possible

For Gene Epstein, life isn’t about what you take; it’s about what you give.

The Bucks County philanthropist absorbed the lesson through the examples of his family. He recalls, for instance, the generosity of his grandparents. They ran a small candy store in Philadelphia. There wasn’t much extra money to go around, but what there was, they altruistically donated.

“My grandparents were poor financially, but they were beyond wealthy when it came to their capacity for helping people,” said Epstein. “I can remember my grandmother telling me that as long as we have enough to pay the bills, then the rest we should use to take care of those in need.”

Embedded in his mind and heart, that philosophy has driven Epstein’s approach to giving, examples of which could fill a book given his decades of major success in business.

For sure, there’s another great example from this holiday season: Epstein, along with his wife Marlene, pledged to donate up to $50,000 to The Intelligencer’s and Bucks County Courier Times’ Give A Christmas funds.

Given the extra economic hardships caused this year by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Gene and Marlene Epstein Humanitarian Fund pledged to match each donation of $500 or more up to $50,000 for all such donations received before Dec. 10.

“We get so much pleasure out of doing this, out of being able to help,” said Epstein. “What we love about Give A Christmas is that it’s so efficient. The donations are put directly to work to help the people who need it most.”

In just the first day after the pledge was made, The Intelligencer’s Give A Christmas received $3,000 in donations eligible for the match.

Indeed, donations from individuals, families, businesses and other organizations are what have fueled the Give A Christmas campaign through the first 32 holiday seasons of its existence.

Administered by the Bucks County Opportunity Council (BCOC), with 10% of the proceeds shared with the Keystone Opportunity Center, The Intelligencer’s Give A Christmas Fund provides financial assistance to individuals and families in need during the holidays. Money not dispersed during the holidays is used to support locals in need throughout the year.

Benefiting low-income people in Central and Upper Bucks County, as well as Eastern Montgomery County and the North Penn and Indian Valley communities, the fund provides a variety of assistance. That includes everything from help with buying gifts and groceries, to paying rent, medicine bills and utility expenses.

“Donors are the lifeblood of Give A Christmas,” said Joseph Cuozzo, director of development at the BCOC. “Large and small, we couldn’t do the program without donors and their contributions. It means a great deal to see donors step up year after year and make contributions. Last year, we had over 750 families, businesses, and individuals help out with gifts. Their support goes directly to families in our community who are in great need, so the donors know their impact is local and essential to the most vulnerable in our community.”

This year, The Intelligencer’s Give A Christmas fundraising goal is $140,000.

Jay and Susan Brodish of Doylestown Township are among the generous locals helping to make that goal a reality. They’ve donated faithfully to the program for years and are doing so again in 2020.

“There’s greater need this year for all the services and supports that the opportunity council provides, including helping to put food on the table,” said Jay Brodish. “One of the reasons I like this charity is that they are local and there’s very little spent on promotion and administration costs. The money goes right to the cause. You can’t get better than that.”

David Creamer feels similarly. Creamer and his wife orchestrate the Francis J. Raab Foundation, a grant-making organization that, among other things, helps veterans and people struggling in hard circumstances. Annually, the foundation makes a sizable donation to Give A Christmas.

The organization has also supported BCOC with donations at other times of the year. For instance, the foundation paid for the labor required to have the roof of a home re-shingled for a woman in need that BCOC was trying to assist. “

I do a lot of research into the causes and organizations we consider supporting, and the good news about Give A Christmas and the Bucks County Opportunity Council is that the money is really being used to help people locally,” said Creamer.

Another frequent supporter of Give A Christmas from the Doylestown area who wished to remain anonymous told The Intelligencer that one thing he especially likes about the BCOC is that it assists people in becoming self-sufficient through its various programs — initiatives that aim to make it so that folks ultimately never have to rely on welfare again.

“They help put people in our community on a path to a better life,” the generous donor said.

In making a donation of $1,010 to Give A Christmas this year, Leroy Blimegger Jr. of Doylestown said, “2020 has been a difficult year for so many families. Our hope is that this donation will help the hardest hit families start 2021 with happiness and hope for a brighter future.”

Surely, it’s a sentiment held by many donors.

“Give until it hurts,” said Epstein. “You get back far more than you put in.”

2020: On Giving Tuesday, help Give A Christmas to those in need

Want to make the world a better place? Consider starting with your own community.

This Giving Tuesday presents an excellent opportunity to do just that.

Created in 2012, Giving Tuesday occurs the Tuesday after Thanksgiving — this year Dec. 1. The global movement centers on encouraging people to do good by donating money, goods and/or volunteer time to worthy organizations and causes.

It’s a great initiative, but for some small local nonprofits in the Bucks County area, the day itself hasn’t traditionally triggered a huge surge in donations, nonprofit leaders said.

“We all believe that highlighting giving this time of year and recognizing the nonprofit industry and what it contributes to society is beneficial, but most small nonprofits don’t see an uptick specifically on Giving Tuesday,” said Joseph Cuozzo, development director at the Doylestown-based nonprofit Bucks County Opportunity Council (BCOC).

This year would be an ideal time to reverse the phenomenon and turn Giving Tuesday into a windfall for nonprofits like the BCOC, including supporting the 2020 Give A Christmas Fund, which the Opportunity Council administers on behalf of The Intelligencer.

“While Giving Tuesday historically hasn’t produced the same impact in Bucks County as it has for larger, national organizations, we do see an increase in donations after Thanksgiving and certainly value this community’s willingness to help their neighbors by donating to Give A Christmas,” said Erin A. Lukoss, CEO/executive director of BCOC.

Give A Christmas provides financial assistance to individuals and families in need during the holidays. Money not dispersed during the holidays is used to support locals in need throughout the year. Ten percent of the proceeds are shared with the nonprofit Keystone Opportunity Center.

Benefiting low-income people in Central and Upper Bucks County, as well as Eastern Montgomery County and the North Penn and Indian Valley communities, the fund provides a variety of assistance. That includes everything from help with buying gifts and groceries, to paying rent, medicine bills and utility expenses.

“Every dollar donated is a sign of hope for those who need it most,” said Lukoss. “The recipients of Give A Christmas are incredibly grateful and humbled by the generosity of strangers.”

Due to the economic and public health hardships caused by COVID-19, the need for assistance among local residents has grown tremendously in 2020.

BCOC’s food assistance pre-COVID ran 300 to 400 per week. Earlier this year, the organization was up to 1,300 to 1,400 per week, with numbers still elevated recently at about 900 to 950 each week.

In the first quarter of BCOC’s fiscal year, the nonprofit had of late helped 635 people with eviction prevention, as compared to a total of 945 people for the entire fiscal year of 2019-20.

The story is similar at Souderton-based Keystone Opportunity Center, another nonprofit focused on helping economically vulnerable community members.

“The number of children and families who have reached out to us has grown exponentially since March,” said Malcolm Friend, director of resource development at Keystone Opportunity Center.

“These truly are exceptional times. Our community, our neighbors, are hurting as they seek the most basic needs of food, shelter and education. We ask for an exceptional response not just this Giving Tuesday, but throughout the Give A Christmas campaign.”

Individuals, families, businesses and other organizations make Give A Christmas possible through donations. This year’s goal is to raise $140,000. Over the 32 years of the program, Give A Christmas has raised roughly $3 million, helping thousands of locals.

Even if Give A Christmas (or BCOC and Keystone) isn’t your chosen donation, nonprofit leaders encourage area residents to find other locally-based nonprofits/causes to support with monetary or volunteer-time donations.

There are great ones from which to choose, from United Way of Bucks County and the Family Service Association of Bucks County, to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Bucks County to community food pantries, such as Pennridge FISH, which also offers clothing and emergency financial assistance.

“Think about what you are passionate about and find an organization that works with those issues,” said Cuozzo. “If you are looking to donate, check out their website to see what’s the best way to do so. Look for ways to get involved that work for the charity. Maybe you can volunteer if they need that. Contact the charity to see what their needs are.”

Added Friend: “Whether it’s making someone smile, helping a neighbor out, showing up for an issue or people we care about, or giving some of what we have to those who need our help, every act of generosity counts and everyone has something to give. Pick a cause that gets you fired up — a local organization that makes a difference in the lives of your community — and give back.”

2020: Give A Christmas is neighbors helping neighbors

Laurie Diaz will never forget the look on the faces of her children as they opened their presents on Christmas morning.

“They were so happy and just really enjoying every second of it,” said Diaz. “It made me ecstatic.”

It was nothing short of a Christmas miracle. Weeks earlier, Christmas in Diaz’s household was in doubt. The Bucks County woman and her partner lacked the funds to provide their children with presents.

“We were so worried that we wouldn’t be able to get them anything,” said Diaz, who is mother to four while also having custody over three nephews and nieces.

But through The Intelligencer’s Give A Christmas program, Diaz was able to obtain gift cards to purchase presents.

“There are families that are doing their best but just don’t have enough,” Diaz said. “They rely on a little help. So if you can help by donating to Give A Christmas, then help. You have a huge impact on people’s lives, children’s lives.”

Administered by the Doylestown-based nonprofit Bucks County Opportunity Council (BCOC) in partnership with The Intelligencer, with 10% of the proceeds shared with the Keystone Opportunity Center, Give A Christmas provides financial assistance to individuals and families in need during the holidays. Money not dispersed during the holidays is used to support locals in need throughout the year.

Benefiting low-income people in Central and Upper Bucks County, as well as Eastern Montgomery County and the North Penn and Indian Valley communities, the fund provides a variety of assistance. That includes everything from help with buying gifts and groceries, to paying rent, medicine bills and utility expenses.

As Diaz alluded to, donations fuel the fund. The goal for this year is to raise $140,000.

Over the 32 years of the program, local individuals, families, businesses and other organizations have donated roughly $3 million to Give A Christmas. Funds generated during the 2019-20 campaign enabled assistance to 450 families, totaling 1,322 people. Of those folks, about 6-in-10 of the beneficiaries were minors. Average annual income for each household was just $16,883. In 85% of the cases, women were the head of the household.

A Bucks County father of five is another who has benefited from Give A Christmas and other support from BCOC.

His wife works and he does the best he can, but is limited by a physical disability. Money is tight, but BCOC has helped with everything from gift cards for Christmas to assistance with groceries and more, including helping him find various jobs he can perform despite his disability.

“They have helped us out so much,” the man said of BCOC. “We’re so very grateful. This year has been especially hard, but we’re making it through with the help of the Opportunity Council.”

He’s not the only for whom 2020 has proved especially tough. Demand for various types of assistance from BCOC, including food help and eviction prevention, has soared as COVID-19 has ravaged the local economy, driving a sharp rise in unemployment.

Diaz’s partner was among the locals who lost his job. That’s made things even more difficult in 2020.

The family has again reached out to Give A Christmas for assistance. Help is on the way.

“We’ll be able to have a Christmas again,” said Diaz. “We’re very thankful.”

This year, Give A Christmas will be running a little differently because of the coronavirus pandemic. In order to distribute the funds safely, BCOC will be instituting an online registration/application process. People will be able to complete the form, which will be on BCOC’s website, www.bcoc.org. They’ll then receive a call with a date to pick up gift cards.

“Give A Christmas is such a wonderful way to help our community members who might be struggling at the holidays or throughout the year,” said Erin A. Lukoss, CEO and executive director of BCOC. “It is a way to give locally and know that 100% of the funds are going to help people in need.”

2020 Donations to Give A Christmas needed more than ever amid COVID woes

When COVID-19 struck and authorities implemented sweeping shutdowns of society and businesses, the hardworking single mother of two from Bucks County was furloughed from her job in the restaurant industry.

Eventually, she began working again, but only part time, due to pandemic-related rules that limit restaurant seating capacity.

Her reduced income, even with help from partial unemployment, wasn’t enough to cover basic essential expenses, like rent.

Then the Bucks County Opportunity Council stepped in.

The Doylestown-headquartered nonprofit, which serves low-income people in Bucks County through a variety of programs aimed at reducing poverty and establishing self-sufficiency, provided several months of rental assistance, helping to keep the mom and her kids in their home.

Sadly, the woman’s hardship story isn’t an anomaly in Bucks and Montgomery counties in 2020. Economic shrapnel cast by COVID has driven a huge increase in demand for assistance services from BCOC — and that’s why it’s so essential for locals with the means to donate to the Give A Christmas Program this holiday season.

Administered by the Bucks County Opportunity Council in partnership with The Intelligencer, with 10% of the proceeds shared with the Keystone Opportunity Center, the fund provides financial assistance to individuals and families in need during the holidays. Money not dispersed during the holidays is used to support locals in need throughout the year.

Benefiting low-income people in Central and Upper Bucks County, as well as Eastern Montgomery County and the North Penn and Indian Valley communities, the fund provides a variety of assistance. That includes everything from help with buying gifts and groceries, to paying rent, medicine bills and utility expenses.

“We are fully expecting an increase in requests for assistance during the Give A Christmas program this year,” said Erin A. Lukoss, CEO/executive director of BCOC. “More families who are out of work, struggling to pay rent and put food on the table may not have any extra for holiday gifts.”

Donations from local individuals, families and businesses power Give A Christmas. They’ve been doing so each year since 1988 when the initiative began. Over the years, about $3 million has poured into the fund. This year’s fundraising goal is $140,000 – an objective BCOC officials hope will be surpassed given the rampant demand for assistance.

“We and our nonprofit partners are all serving more people now compared to the same time last year,” said Lukoss. “We have all seen an increase in requests for food help, rental assistance and other basic needs.”

There are hard numbers to back what Lukoss asserts. Bucks County ranks in the top 20% of counties nationally for increase in unemployment over the same time the prior year, according to an analysis from The Wall Street Journal.

BCOC has seen firsthand what that stark distinction means for local households.

“At one point, we were seeing triple the number of people we typically help,” Lukoss said. “Today, we are more than double our numbers as compared to before COVID. Food assistance pre-COVID was 300-to-400 per week. Earlier this year, we were up to 1,300-to-1,400 per week. Now we are right about 900-to-950 each week.”

Requests for help with eviction prevention have soared, too.

“In the first quarter of our fiscal year, we have helped 635 people, as compared to a total of 945 people for the entire fiscal year of 2019-20,” said Lukoss. “We continue to serve people who are working but at reduced hours, or who are furloughed.”

If there’s a bright side, though, it’s this: Donations to BCOC already are up for the year. Those that can help are feeling compassion tug on their heartstrings and making donations to help less fortunate neighbors.

Lukoss is encouraging locals to keep the generosity coming this holiday season with Give A Christmas.

“I feel like people who have not been as affected by COVID are feeling really blessed and thankful and they want to help front-line workers, people furloughed, and others dealing with hardship as much as possible,” she said. “My gut feeling is that those who can help, will do so in a big way this year.”

2020 The Intelligencer’s Give A Christmas campaign kicks off for 2020-21 holiday season

Sometimes, the ends just don’t meet.

Jessica was no slouch. The single mother from Bucks County was working hard as a self-employed housekeeper to support her three children. But hustle as she did, there just wasn’t enough money to meet basic needs, including safe, affordable housing.

Enter the Bucks County Opportunity Council and The Intelligencer’s Give A Christmas.

The Opportunity Council, a Doylestown-based nonprofit, connected Jessica with a self-sufficiency coach who provided training, financial assistance that helped pay for essentials, and a bridge to a better-paying, full-time job.

Soon after landing that job, Jessica was able to stably house her family, moving them into their own apartment. More education and training is in the cards for Jessica, and she now has the realistic dream of one day owning a house.

“Without the assistance, Jessica and her children would have spiraled further into crisis and an uncertain future,” said Tammy B. Schoonover, chief program officer at BCOC.

That the agency was able to provide the assistance was thanks, in significant part, to Give A Christmas.

Administered by the Bucks County Opportunity Council in partnership with The Intelligencer, with 10% of the proceeds shared with the Keystone Opportunity Center, the fund provides financial assistance to individuals and families in need during the holidays. Money not dispersed during the holidays is used to support locals in need throughout the year.

Benefiting low-income people in Central and Upper Bucks County, as well as Eastern Montgomery County and the North Penn and Indian Valley communities, the fund provides a variety of assistance. That includes everything from help with buying gifts and groceries, to paying rent, medicine bills and utility expenses.

Of course, the money doesn’t materialize out of thin air. Donations from local individuals, families and businesses power the fund — and have been doing so each year since 1988 when the initiative began.

“Give A Christmas is such a wonderful way to help our community members who might be struggling at the holidays or throughout the year,” said Erin A. Lukoss, CEO and executive director of the Bucks County Opportunity Council. “It is a way to give locally and know that 100% of the funds are going to help people in need.”

"This has been a year of upheaval for so many families," Intelligencer Executive Editor Shane Fitzgerald said. "Give A Christmas is made to order for helping those who have suffered economic hardship during these trying times. Bucks and Montgomery counties traditionally have been extremely generous and this year's donation will have added impact.

"We're starting earlier this year so we can safely distribute donations during this pandemic, so we hope contributors can help us help more people before the holidays. We are extremely proud of our longstanding service to the community with Give A Christmas, and it may never have been more needed than it is this year."

Over the 32 years of the program, Give A Christmas has raised roughly $3 million, helping thousands of locals. More than $132,000 in donations generated during the 2019-20 campaign enabled assistance to 450 families, totaling 1,322 people. Of those folks, about 6 in 10 of the beneficiaries were minors. Average annual income for each household was just $16,883. In 85% of the cases, women were the head of the household.

This year, Give A Christmas will be running a little differently because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In order to distribute the funds safely, BCOC will be instituting an online registration/application process. People will be able to complete the form, which will be on BCOC’s website, www.bcoc.org. Recipients will then receive a call with a date to pick up gift cards.

For households in desperate need, those gift cards are nothing short of miracles. To make the miracles happen, however, the community must donate generously, thereby helping Give A Christmas meet its seasonal fundraising total of $140,000.

Said Schoonover: “The Give A Christmas program helps provide families, like Jessica’s, with the financial support they need to get back on their feet.”