Policy changes within the Volunteer Office of the Baltimore County Department of Social Services have altered the county's flagship donation drives for families in need, leaving at least one local volunteer wondering whether the county's neediest residents will be served the same way.

"We cannot accept any (physical) donations, period," said Pat Shaw, a Towson resident who volunteers her time at the office.

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"Donations come into that office every single day, and now, they're being told they have to give them to the Salvation Army or Goodwill," she said.

And with that policy change — which was instituted by Health and Social Services Director Dr. Gregory Branch — Shaw fears the donation drives, in which residents and businesses could "adopt" families or children for summer camping,back-to-school, winter coat and Christmas donation drives, could lose their effectiveness.

County health and social services spokeswoman Monique Lyle said that children can no longer be "adopted" in the back-to-school drive, which begins this month.

Instead, school items such as notebooks, pens and backpacks will be purchased through the Fund for Social Welfare, a nonprofit that collects financial donations on behalf of Social Services.

Additionally, Health and Human Services is partnering with private organizations for the project, and donated items will be accepted by those organizations at a designated time in August. Lyle said the details of that event are still being worked out, but despite the changes, they "anticipate serving the same number of students this year."

Shaw said the changes are in line with a recent shift of focus in the volunteer office.

Under the guidelines, interested businesses and residents can only donate money — not items — earmarked for donation drives to the Fund for Social Welfare.

The policy changes affect more than just the agency's four donation drives, however. There have also been changes to the Clothing Closet and Housewares Closet, housed at the Drumcastle Government Center, 6401 York Road, Towson, where needy county residents pick up items.

In a letter to Shaw dated May 1, Branch wrote that the Volunteer Office is "evolving" from a place where clients could get everyday household items — even furniture — to an "Emergency Resource Closet … meant to sustain users until a more permanent solution can be found."

The closet will still operate, but will offer such items as diapers, clothing, and blankets, Lyle said. "Some items are being purchased, as they always were, while others are provided through nonprofit partnerships," she said.

In the May 1 letter, Branch attributed the changes to "a reexamination of the county charter, the recent executive order concerning ethical conduct in government, and a shifting of how best to serve the community."

In June, however, Lyle said accepting the donations did not violate county ethics law.

"Basically, we are reorganizing these closets into one emergency closet, and making determinations as to what we will and will not receive as donations," Lyle said.

"The Fund for Social Welfare currently doesn't have a space to house donated items, so they are not collecting them at this particular time," she said.

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According to Shaw, who volunteers at several different organizations including the Red Cross, the Volunteer Office consists of a full-time director, a handful of part-time employees, and a volunteer corps.

'It's not personalized'

Shaw is among those who purchase products with donated money, but said the giving experience for businesses and families is different when they're asked to cut a check instead of teaching their children the value of giving while purchasing their own school supplies at the store.

"It's not personalized," she said.

She said the new practice also has an impact on those who receive the donated items. When a family or businesses decides to participate in the donation programs, they can spend whatever they choose on the items. But when Shaw shops, she buys in bulk and sets a strict budget, using years of experience to find the best bargains in the area.

Recently, the county underwent its first donation drive since the policy changes, in which summer camping items are distributed to children in need.

Lyle said no donated goods were used for the campaign, but "we were able to serve the same number of children with financial support from the Fund for Social Welfare in combination with funds from our agency budget."

For more informationon the offerings of the emergency closet, and for details of the upcoming back-to-school drive, call 410-853-3024.

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