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SPAN urges communities to be giving


The Severna Park Assistance Network last week celebrated two years of existence by urging other communities to start similar charitable organizations.

A food pantry and emergency assistance program run by nine churches in the Severna Park area, SPAN has helped more than 2,000 client families with money for fuel and electric bills, rent to prevent eviction and prescription drugs.

"We all concur as volunteers and other assistance agencies that we need to develop more agencies like this in the county, so we can start supporting ourselves as communities," said Barbara Birkenheuer, the group's volunteer chairman.

Glen Burnie has a similar network called NEON and Annapolis has the Lighthouse Shelter, but many areas of the county have no organized charitable group to meet needs.

"A poverty pocket such as Odenton/Severn, with Pioneer Village, has no concerted effort in terms of a group," Birkenheuer said. "We do service that area, but it puts a lot of burden on SPAN and NEON. If little agencies like this were started in other communities, if each of us took care of our own, it would be less of a burden on the government. Certainly if we can help each other, it would be a great relief for everybody."

As county government trims its budget and needs increase, SPAN's outreach continues to grow, she said.

During SPAN's first month, 53 clients came; last month 140 clients were helped.

Countless bags of food have been given. At Thanksgiving and Christmas times, families have been helped by SPAN in conjunction with individuals and other organizations.

Six churches sponsored SPAN in April 1990. Today there are nine church sponsors. The hours of the pantry, located behind Our Shepherd Lutheran Church on Benfield Boulevard, have increased from 12 hours per week to 21 1/2 per week. More than 50 volunteers keep SPAN operating.

County executive Robert Neall has suggested SPAN as a model for communities in the county, Birkenheuer said. The organization is financed by pledges of support from churches as well as gifts of food and money from people and organizations in the community.

While food donations have remained steady during this recession winter and spring, Birkenheuer said, monetary donations have decreased somewhat. But the need continues to increase. "The sharp change started mid-winter and hasn't decreased," she said.

And she expects it to get worse. "I'm projecting, but clients without children who used to be able to get help through social services will not be able to as of April 1. We may see a heavier flow of clients who don't have children but still are evicted -- older people, others who cannot now claim emergency assistance from the government."

Many of the needy come from the poorer sections of Severna Park, Pasadena and Millersville. Because Severna Park is one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the county, people often assume that there are no poor families, Birkenheuer said. But the recession has left no area untouched.

"Government assistance is just not enough," she said. But SPAN's appeal is more basic than simply need. Reads the network's slogan: "We love because God first loved us. We give because God has given to us."

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