In January, Melissa Woodson took over as executive director of Roanoke Area Ministries, a charity that offers a day shelter, hot meals and financial assistance to those who are homeless or are in danger of becoming so due to an unexpected expense.
The agency’s Emergency Financial Assistance Program, which provides help with paying rent, utilities and medication, is supported by the Good Neighbors Fund — a yearly fund drive sponsored by The Roanoke Times with donations sent in by the newspaper’s readers.
Last year 3,799 clients — 1,276 of whom were children under 18 — were given $216,165 in aid through the Emergency Financial Assistance Program. Of that amount, $146,788 came from the Good Neighbors Fund.
Woodson, who has more than 25 years of experience working with nonprofit organizations, has brought changes not only to the agency’s day-to-day operations, but also to the administration of the fund, which was established in 1984 by the newspaper’s then-publisher, Walter Rugaber.
Woodson said her first goal when she arrived was to modernize the agency’s accounting system to make it easier and more convenient to use. She also made the difficult decision to cut some employee benefits.
“It keeps them employed,” Woodson said about the benefit cuts. “We need them to run our programs.”
She also and has scrutinized every expense, including the cost of heating, cooling and maintaining the 116-year-old decommissioned church the agency occupies in exchange for a nominal fee paid to the Catholic Diocese of Richmond. These measures will allow the agency to break even this year, something that hasn’t always happened in past years, she said.
While she worked on RAM’s finances, Woodson observed as her staff did their jobs, and she quickly made Molly Archer — who was hired as the executive assistant — RAM’s marketing director instead. With the help of volunteers, Archer updated the agency’s website and focused on expanding RAM’s social media and online networking. RAM also has invested in a new database that improves messaging to donors and volunteers.
“I knew she was very capable,” Woodson said about Archer. “ They did a fabulous job. We really needed something that was easy to navigate. ”
Of course, a little over two months into her tenure, normal operations were turned upside down by COVID-19 precautions.
“We had to make quick changes for safety reasons,” Woodson said.
The day shelter is currently open only to a small group of chronically homeless guests. Some of the pressure to serve this population has been relieved by the Roanoke Rescue Mission, Woodson said. The mission usually just provides overnight housing, but is now offering day shelter services as well. Others who would be living on the streets are staying in hotels after receiving vouchers from a federal program that is providing direct relief to citizens during the pandemic. The people who do come to RAM’s shelter practice social distancing, Woodson said.
Last year, the day shelter served 30,293 free daily meals to 1,569 people. In March, the dining room was shut down, and it remains closed, Woodson said, but after three or four days of serving bagged lunches, the agency began offering full meals in takeout containers.
“We just decided that the people we serve are so fragile, we wanted them to have hot, nutritious meals, ” Woodson said. Since the pandemic began, “the numbers have gone up.”
The clothes closet for the homeless is still open, Woodson said, as is the employment program, which last year assisted 51 people with obtaining birth certificates and other documentation, transportation to work, and work clothes and tools.
The financial assistance office also has remained open during the pandemic, Woodson said. Those looking for aid are encouraged to apply online, but many of them prefer to come in person, so social distancing measures are observed during the intake process.
In September, Woodson said, RAM began working with the Western Virginia Water Authority to process funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to help pay for water bills. At the beginning of the pandemic, she said, household budgets were somewhat cushioned by stays on evictions and utility terminations, as well as by aid from the federal government, but many of those bills will come due after the first of year.
“We’re seeing people we’ve never seen before,” Woodson said. “So many of them are working-class people.”
RAM also has secured an $18,900 FEMA grant for rent assistance, she said. “If they’re really far behind, we’ll use it with Good Neighbors Fund money.”
One of the biggest changes at RAM is the lack of volunteers in the building. Most volunteers are over 65, Woodson said, so back in March, “I firmly told our older folks that we wanted them to go home because we cared so much about them.” However, some of them insisted on staying.
Currently, there are no volunteers working in the shelter, and the volunteer crews in the kitchen practice social distancing while they prepare the meals.
Woodson expects RAM to lose nearly $20,000 this year in monies that would have been generated from fundraising activities that have now been canceled. But she hopes to recoup much of that through a virtual theater production. The play, called “Date Night”, was written by Roanoker Dana Franklin Pannell, winner of the 2004 Billboard Magazine World International Songwriter’s Competition. It will be posted on RAM’s YouTube channel from Nov. 21 to De. 31. It’s free to watch, but there will be a link for donations to RAM.
“I think it’s going to make up that money,” Woodson said.
In another first, RAM has been the subject of an anthropological study of its guests. The preliminary information the study has garnered has been surprising, Woodson said. When it’s complete, it will be shared with the board to use in strategic planning and new programming.
“This is all so exciting to me,” she said. She hopes someday to add mental health treatment to the agency’s current offerings. “Maybe we can be a pilot [plan] for Roanoke.”
Woodson said her first year at RAM has been a “whirlwind,” but it’s been both successful and satisfying.
“The staff and the board have been wonderful. I’ve made so many changes and they all have been so supportive of me,” she said. The only other change she’d like to make is the addition of financial and mental health experts to the board.
The Good Neighbors Fund drive begins the Sunday before Thanksgiving and ends Dec. 31. During this time, The Roanoke Times will publish a series of profiles of some of the people who have been helped by the fund. Readers often ask to give directly to those featured in the stories, but donations cannot be earmarked for individuals. Donations may be made by by clicking the Good Neighbors link on the Roanoke.com homepage, or by clipping the form that appears in the newspaper’s print edition and returning it with a check.
In past years, all of the money raised went directly the poor. This year, RAM will be taking over the bookkeeping chores from the newspaper, and 10% of the funds will be paid to a vendor the agency has contracted to handle donations.
The names of donors and honorees will be published in the newspaper, and every donor will receive a thank-you card from RAM. Those who give more than $100 will be sent a personal letter.
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