ST. LOUIS — Alyssa Despotis, a senior at Washington University, joined the “Give Thanks Give Back” group on campus two years ago, as a sophomore.
“I was looking for a way to give back to the St. Louis community,” she said. But she also wanted to help provide an opportunity for other students to contribute.
Since 2001, Give Thanks Give Back members have gathered donations and gifts each fall for the 100 Neediest Cases campaign — an annual effort by the United Way of Greater St. Louis in partnership with the Post-Dispatch to make the holidays better for area residents who could use a hand.
Growing up in St. Louis County, Despotis had not been involved with 100 Neediest, but the 2017 graduate of Westminster Christian Academy had done similar service work through her church. When she joined the Washington U. group, she soon learned that 100 Neediest was “pretty well- known” by businesses and residents across the region.
Starting today and over the next four weeks, the newspaper will highlight 100 families or individuals who need help. Area residents, corporations and other groups contribute cash and adopt the cases, sometimes dozens at a time. The campaign runs through December.
Now in its 98th year, the campaign’s reach has grown much larger than 100 cases. The United Way received nearly 4,000 cases this year from 52 social service agencies, schools and other member groups across the 16-county region. In all, the campaign aims to assist nearly 9,500 adults and children in 2020.
“I think a lot of people think we help 100 families a year,” said Becky White of the United Way. “This year it’s 38 times that.”
At Washington University, Give Thanks Give Back’s goal is to sponsor 157 people this year, all through Grace Hill Settlement House.
Despotis and her seven-member executive board have been working on expanding the program.
Barclay Dale, a junior, said in a text message that participating has been “a wonderful experience.”
“Giving gifts makes me happy; helping coordinate a gift drive for those that have less than me makes me proud to be apart of something successful and beneficial to my community,” he wrote.
Students, faculty, employees and campus groups commit to spend at least $25 per person on gifts, Despotis said, although some often donate more.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, they won’t hold the community-wide gift drop off and wrapping event that also featured a capella groups and food from local restaurants, she said. Instead, they are asking people to wrap their own presents. Despotis, a mathematics major, said it has been “logistically interesting” to figure out how to safely accept gifts and get them to Grace Hill.
The pandemic has both compounded the need and made it more challenging to help, said Erin Smith of the United Way.
“Every year, there’s need in our region,” Smith said. “This year, of course, the need is even greater.”
Many of the families face crushing woes: overdue bills, homelessness, hunger, unsafe housing, the death of loved ones. They struggle to care for relatives with addictions or illnesses. This year, some have also had to face pandemic-caused layoffs, and have had to choose whether to work or stay home to supervise children learning virtually or to protect relatives with compromised immune systems.
Donors who adopt a family get a list of that family’s needs, some big, some small.
“Every single gift makes a difference,” said White. “For a lot of these families, this is how they are going to have a holiday.”
$5 to $100,000
All 100 Post-Dispatch cases were adopted last year, along with 789 other cases. Even those whose cases are not adopted receive financial help through a check from the United Way. White said 100% of the donations go to families.
Madeline Sowatsky, resource and support manager with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri, said that one of the top questions from families is when will they know if help is coming. Being able to tell them that assistance is on the way provides relief and “peace of mind,” she said.
The 2019 campaign raised $1.36 million through donations ranging from $5 to a $100,000 gift from Scottrade co-founder Rodger Riney and his wife, Paula.
The Rineys gave an additional $50,000 to the new Ralph and Ruthie Deuser 100 Neediest Cases Endowment Fund, named for longtime supporters Ralph Deuser, a St. Louis Public Schools social worker who died in 2017, and Ruthie Deuser, who was a vice president of First National Bank and died in 2013.
The endowment fund will send 4% of its balance each year to the 100 Neediest Cases. Donors to that fund are asked to go to www.100neediestcases.org/leave-a-legacy.
Christina Haren, school-family liaison with the Illinois Center for Autism, said donors love being able to help out, “knowing that they’re making a difference in that family’s life.”
“It’s huge,” she said.
Generosity holds steady
Gerold Watson, a social worker with St. Louis Public Schools and the district’s liaison to 100 Neediest Cases, said that the campaign’s biggest impact is in stabilizing families’ financial situations and in allowing struggling parents to provide something special for their children during the holidays.
Parents who struggle every day to provide the basics for their children have broken down crying in Watson’s office, faced with “another year that they’re going to be able to provide nothing or very limited things during the holiday season.”
“For some of them, it really means the world,” he said.
The campaign’s financial donations also help families struggling with homelessness or thousands of dollars in bills. Watson recalled one family with $2,000 in utility bills “and no way to pay it.”
“It can really just turn your entire situation around when you’re suddenly faced with a solution like that,” he said.
Watson said the school district submitted 329 cases this year. That’s fewer than last year because the district had nine new social workers who weren’t yet familiar with the families who were most in need, plus they had to talk with parents and students virtually and find new ways for parents to fill out the required forms.
This year, some social service agencies have lost staff, Smith said, or are not meeting with clients face-to-face due to the pandemic. Some are sitting out this year and are planning to return next year, she said.
Although 2020 has thrown some challenges at the 100 Neediest Cases campaign and its beneficiaries, “People’s generosity has been the same” during the pandemic, Despotis said.
“It seems like they really want to give back to the St. Louis community.”
White echoed that.
“Nothing is really working the way it ought to” this year, she said, “but 100 Neediest is. The St. Louis community continues to come through, and support these families.”
Case 1: Before the pandemic, Ms. M was able to work, pay her bills, support her family and even volunteer in her children’s schools. Now, this…