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Baltimore-area nonprofits highlight the power of philanthropy

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Say the word "philanthropist" and the names of the wealthy and powerful come to mind.

But philanthropists don't need to make million-dollar gifts to help change lives. Many nonprofits in the Baltimore area thrive by receiving many small gifts — the result of people of average means putting aside a little money to benefit a good cause.

To mark the season of giving, we offer snapshots of donors and beneficiaries at three nonprofit groups that use small gifts to make a big difference in the Baltimore area.

Maryland Food Bank

Robert and Mary Lou Latane are not millionaires. They weren't born into money; they didn't win the lottery. In fact, the couple, who are both 85, have been living on a fixed income since he retired from the city school system decades ago.

But that doesn't mean they don't have the power to change lives with their gifts.

For well over a decade, the Latanes have been giving $25 a month to the Maryland Food Bank, among other charities.

The Food Bank estimates that the Villa Nova residents have made more than 135 donations.

"We're comfortable, and there are more and more people who aren't," said Mary Lou Latane, who was a stay-at-home mother for the couple's three sons. "We thought contributing to [the Food Bank] did what we wanted in trying to help others."

For those who are hungry, the Food Bank can be a lifesaver.

The Rev. Andre Samuel feeds about 40 to 50 people a day at his Southwest Baltimore food pantry, Fishes and Loaves. About half are working parents; many others are disabled people and seniors.

"So many seniors that come say, 'This helps me be able to pay for my medicine. I have to decide between eating and paying for my medicine,'" he said.

Samuel, a minister at nearby Faith Tabernacle, makes the drive to the Food Bank's warehouse in Halethorpe at 8 a.m. each weekday. He's back at Fishes and Loaves before 9 as the first people seeking food arrive.

The number of people seeking help has increased 100-fold in recent weeks because of cuts to food stamps and the government shutdown, Samuel said.

"I was really concerned about running out of food, but the Maryland Food Bank had some food that they turned around and gave to us," he said.

The Food Bank, which was founded in 1979, provides about 29 million meals annually to people in 22 counties. Trucks gather donations from stores, food manufacturers and farms, and the nonprofit also purchases staples such as peanut butter, cereal and cans of tuna.

Across the state, more than 781,000 people are "food insecure," which means that they don't know how they'll obtain their next meal. Many of those people do not meet the requirements for food stamps or other assistance programs, meaning they rely entirely on food pantries and other charities.

The Latanes know that their small donations put meals on the tables of hungry families.

"It doesn't take a whole lot to begin to make some difference," Mary Lou Latane said. "It does make you feel better to know you're helping somebody."

GiveCorps

"Blessed Is the Peacemaker" is a powerful film by any measure.

Round-faced boys recount witnessing shootings in their McElderry Park neighborhood. Tard Carter recalls how he pretended to be a weed dealer when he was growing up, running around with a toy gun and a plastic baggie full of parsley flakes. Now he has renounced that life and serves as a supervisor for Safe Streets, negotiating peaceful resolutions to neighborhood conflicts.

What makes this short documentary even more powerful is that it was made by high school students working after school and on weekends.

"It really opened my mind to how things really are in Baltimore," said Taqi Juba, 17, who made the film along with other students in the Wide Angle Youth Media program. "Even if you do wrong, you can always make up for it one way or another."

For 13 years, Wide Angle Youth Media has guided young people as they take photos and produce films to allow them to "tell their own stories and make changes in Baltimore," said executive director Susan Malone.

The students, who range in age from 10 to 20, have explored bullying, homelessness, Asperger's, depression and other issues. Most recently, they have been working on a social marketing campaign to help reduce high rates of truancy in pre-K and kindergarten by teaching parents the importance of regular attendance for the youngest pupils.

Wide Angle Youth Media is funded in part by GiveCorps, a nonprofit that lets donors click through scores of causes to find those that spark their interest. Donors can decide to give a set amount each month — say $3, the cost of a cup of coffee — and receive perks from advertisers, such as discounts on pizza or cupcakes.

Tim Dotterweich, 46, a technology salesman from Timonium, has been donating through GiveCorps for about five years.

"They make giving accessible and fun and easy," he said. "They bring attention to causes in the city that otherwise wouldn't get any attention."

GiveCorps also provides an entry point for donors to become volunteers. Dotterweich has been volunteering with The Sixth Branch, a group led by veterans that is seeking to improve East Baltimore's Oliver neighborhood.

The employees of Timonium-based Michele's Granola are among those giving and doing volunteer work through GiveCorps.

Founder Michele Tsucalas, 35, gives 1 percent of her sales to food-related causes through GiveCorps. The company recently had a day of service when employees joined with Gather Baltimore to glean produce from farms to give to the hungry.

The 1 percent donation seemed like "a big commitment at first," Tsucalas said. But, it seems to have helped business.

"As we continue to grow and make commitments like this, our business continues to grow," Tsucalas said.

For the students in programs at Wide Angle Youth Media, which shares a Remington office building with GiveCorps, small donations through the philanthropic group have helped them achieve their artistic visions.

Michael Bonner, 15, said the film he made last year about after-school programs helped him turn around his grades. The Poly sophomore says his GPA shot up when he got involved in the project. He now wants to be a filmmaker.

"Working outside of school made me want to work in school," he said. "It gave me something to be productive for."

Fuel Fund

Month by month, Ardenia Holland watched the amount she owed BGE rise. By early October, her bills for gas and electricity had climbed to more than $800.

A few years ago, Holland would never have imagined being unable to pay. She holds a master's degree in public administration and had a steady job with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. When she left to start her own business in 2008, she had more than $40,000 in savings, she said.

Now, after years of having little luck finding contracts and jobs, the 51-year-old Irvington resident has run through all her savings and retirement funds. She does work for the Census Bureau, among other part-time jobs but struggles to pay the bills.

"There's a whole new face of poverty," said Holland. "When people see us, they don't think we're struggling."

For the poor, winter can be a frightening time. As the air grows chillier, heating bills mount and the fear of having the power shut off looms.

Those who lose power often turn to candles and kerosene heaters — potential fire hazards — for light and heat. Others suffer through potentially deadly cold.

The Fuel Fund was founded in 1981, following the energy crisis of the late 1970s that sent fuel prices soaring. Then-Baltimore City Councilwoman Victorine Q. Adams founded the organization after a couple in her district froze to death in their home.

The Fuel Fund has helped more than 20,000 households keep the power on over the past three years. More than half of the residents of those homes have been children, and a growing number of seniors have sought help as well. This year the fund has a goal of aiding 9,615 households.

Susan Ayres, a retired Social Security worker from Timonium, learned about the Fuel Fund when she started volunteering there about six years ago.

She was struck by how many people made small donations to the fund — donations which, when added together, could make a real difference. Through a program of matching credits and client payments, a $100 donation can cover a $300 bill.

For each dollar donated to the fund, 92 cents goes directly to helping families pay their bills. Donations also cover the costs of a program that helps families learn how to minimize their energy bills.

Ayres, 61, has made quarterly donations to the fund for the past few years.

"It's a basic need and you don't always think about it," she said. "People give a lot at Christmas time, but you need heat all winter long. Give what you can afford to give. If you can only give $5, that can help too."

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

twitter.com/juliemore

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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