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Good Neighbors Fund: Thanks to readers who helped campaign exceed goal

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For the second year in a row, the annual Roanoke Times Good Neighbors Fund drive is on track to become another record-breaker.

Although the $238,418 collected by Thursday is less than the all-time high of $276,374 sent in by the newspapers’ readers by this time last year, it marks only the second time in the 38-year history of the fund drive that the amount raised has been above $200,000. The final figure should be even higher, as donations will accepted through March 31.

Melissa Woodson, Executive Director of Roanoke Area Ministries, which screens applicants for the funds through its Emergency Financial Assistance Program, said she had set the agency’s goal this year at just $175,000.

“I thought it was a reasonable amount,” she said, “But it exceeded my expectations.”

Woodson said she suspects the total is lower this year because there was less stimulus money in people’s pockets and inflation is up.

On the other hand, she said, “this year, we had a lot of brand-new donors. It’s the first time we’ve entered them into our database.”

Woodson said she continues to be impressed by the generosity shown by local residents and businesses.

“The Roanoke Times’ readers are indeed good neighbors,” she said.

The need for the aid is up as well, Woodson said. The Emergency Financial Assistance Program provides help with rent, utilities and prescriptions to keep those who have had an unexpected financial setback from becoming homeless.

Woodson said there have been many more working and middle-class people asking for help this winter, as opposed to the chronically poor.

“People are seeing the middle class shrink. We’ve had them lined up out the door. ”

With the stays on evictions and utility cut-offs ending and the cost of natural gas and heating oil going up, the bills are coming due. Many applicants formerly held down paying jobs, she said, but are now out of work, often due to illness or having to quit to take care of someone else. And everyone has been hit hard by inflation, especially when it comes to food, Woodson said.

In light of that, RAM’s chef , Heather McGhee, who prepares the free, hot meal that’s available at the shelter every day, has started a podcast focused on preventing food waste around the home.

Woodson said people who are in the process of being re- housed often come in looking for help with deposits for rent or utility bills.

“A lot of agencies don’t do that,” she said. “For 2022, I’ve budgeted 30% [of the funds] for that.”

Woodson said that except for donations of canned goods and postage stamps for the thank-you letters that will go out to Good Neighbors Fund donors, there has been very little response to the charity’s wish list this year.

“I wish we could have gotten two new laptops,” she said. “The ones we’re using are so old.”

Woodson is still trying to think of ways to obtain the number one item on the list — a 16-passenger van to replace the mid-’80s model the charity is using. But there were enough donations made toward operating expenses this year that the agency might be able to afford to purchase a van at-cost, she said, but due to the shortage of computer chips for automobiles “there’s not a lot of inventory,” and she’s not sure a dealership would have one to offer right now.

Despite her disappointment with the wish list, Woodson said that in her second year with the charity, she is still amazed by the number of people who stop by with donations of other things.

“This has never happened at any other job I’ve had — people giving so much in-kind,” she said. The local Latter-Day Saints churches are organizing a big food drive in March, she said, just when Christmas donations will start to run low.

Woodson said she is looking forward to exciting changes in the new year. It has long been the dream of RAM’s board of directors and staff to move out of the early-20th century former church building it’s housed in. The rental terms are good, she said, but it’s on top of a steep hill and too far from other services, such as the Roanoke Rescue Mission, which houses many of RAM’s day shelter guests at night.

At the present location, “we don’t have the resources to do what we want to do,” she said.

It’s been tough to find the right space, Woodson said. It needs to have at least 13,000 square feet and be a comfortable walking distance from the Rescue Mission.

“We want a place where [guests] can come and take a shower every day, get breakfast and have a cup of coffee.”

Woodson also wants to be able to offer private rooms for face-to-face mental health services, noting that there have been three suicides in the last year among shelter guests.

“People who come here are like a family,” she said. “We want to get to them before they’re too far gone.”

Woodson said she believes they have identified the ideal spot, which, while near the Rescue Mission, is not actually in the city’s southeast quadrant, where residents have long complained that the charity attracts those who have no personal investment in the neighborhood.

“It has no ‘not in my backyard’ issues,” she said. “This one checks all the boxes.”

While negotiating for the property is still in the early stages, Woodson said, the charity is already in the “silent campaign” phase of fundraising. Donations toward the $3 to $3.5 million purchase and renovation price have already started to come in.

There is no timetable for the project yet, she said, “But we’re in a good place.”

In the meantime, Woodson said, RAM’s staff offers “our profound thank you to The Roanoke Times for a tremendous year. We are all so very grateful.”

Sam Worthington, regional president for Lee Enterprises, which owns the Roanoke Times, said: “I’m very proud that we were able to help RAM House exceed their fundraising goals for 2021. It is a true testament to this community and our loyal readers, and we thank them.”

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