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Nonprofits: As last resort, group sees growing needs

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

“Thank you for buying me the new cloth[e]s they all fit really well and none of them sag at all and I like each and every one of them.”

“Thank you for the donation that you gave me for clothes. I bought three shirts, [a] yellow one and one had a pony and pink shorts. I got one pair of shoes and things for my hair too.”

“I love my new clothes. Thank you for helping me.”

The letters and cards are as close as the volunteers of St. Christopher’s Children get to those whom they help with clothing and medical care. “We don’t want the kids to be identified within the school system as recipients of charity,” said Bob Pelletier, who founded the program five years ago.

The nonprofit figures it has provided help in over 1,700 cases, with over 400 of those in just the last year. The growth in demand isn’t surprising. When it began, just over a quarter of children in Georgetown County lived in poverty. The figure now is over a third, or more than 4,400 children, according to the latest report from S.C. Kids Count.

The nonprofit is now preparing to enter a new phase as Pelletier steps down as president. Ron Gilbert, a retired engineering company executive, will take over this spring. He and Pelletier believe the group needs to reach more children and raise its profile.

The goal of St. Christopher’s Children is to be a provider of last resort. “We’re there when no one else is,” said Joe Ferreira, a board member.

The nonprofit started out helping children in foster care and those referred from the state Department of Social Services. It quickly expanded into the schools, first on Waccamaw Neck, where its organizers live, then across the county. It started up just as the economy entered the Great Recession.

“We had two or three really tough years where people needed services,” said Randy Dozier, the superintendent of schools for Georgetown County. “If you’re in need, you can’t do very well academically.”

Although St. Christopher’s Children members don’t meet the kids they help, they hear their stories from school nurses and guidance counselors: the children who don’t own underwear, the ones who cut the toes out of their shoes when they become too small, the ones who don’t own winter coats.

“They have been really great to us,” said Pam McDill, nurse at Waccamaw Middle School, one of the first to get help from St. Christopher’ Children. She said the school averages four or five requests a month for help, mostly for clothes. One child got help with hearing issues. Another with orthodontics.

Schools have always been resourceful in providing for students in need, but it’s always been informal, like making use of unclaimed items from the lost-and-found closet. “I would get a lot of things from there and wash them,” McDill said.

For middle school students, self-esteem is a significant issue. Volunteers from St. Christopher’s Children shop for the clothes. In addition to being new, they are stylish.

“The shoppers do an excellent job,” McDill said.

She tells parents, but not the children where the clothes come from. “Middle schoolers won’t wear it if they know it’s a hand-out,” she said.

There are other community groups that help out around the county. “They’re out there working, but you may not know it unless you live in that community,” Dozier said.

But when they run out of resources, there’s no safety net.

And that’s the void St. Christopher’s Children has filled. “We’re not out there trying to grab anyone else’s thunder, Pelletier said.

Most of its requests are for clothing, but there is a growing demand for health care, particularly dental and orthodontic care. That’s the most expensive part of the program, Pelletier said.

The nonprofit has an annual budget of about $150,000, with in-kind donations from healthcare providers accounting for $40,000.

A dinner-dance and auction in February is the largest single fundraiser for St. Christopher’s Children. Gilbert has been at work on that project for about six months. Once it’s over, he will focus on taking over the day-to-day operations from Pelletier.

“It’s going to be a challenge to absorb everything Bob does on a daily basis,” Gilbert said.

For the last five years, he was responsible for expanding a company based in Washington State to expand in Asia. “I travelled about 350 days a year for business,” he said.

It was on one of the other 15 days that Pelletier, a fellow member of the Knights of Columbus at Precious Blood of Christ Catholic Church, asked Gilbert to deliver some clothes to Waccamaw Elementary School for St. Christopher’s Children.

The group’s mission struck a chord with Gilbert, one of seven children who grew up on a farm in rural Pennsylvania. “Life didn’t seem difficult, although it was,” he said. “I can remember having one shirt and one pair of pants for a year in grade school.”

He joined the nonprofit’s board and was on the committee that looked for Pelletier’s successor. Pelletier said when the organization began that he expected to turn it over to new leaders once it became established.

“New people bring new ideas,” he said.

“We looked for somebody who could serve the organization with the same drive Bob has,” Gilbert said.

One day, Ferreira, his fellow board member, said, “Ron, are you ready to take the job?”

“I was very humbled,” Gilbert said.

Pelletier said he is looking forward to stepping down, but Gilbert knows it is hard to let go of something you have created.

Most of the children who receive help live west of the Waccamaw River, Pelletier said, but most of the support for St. Christopher’s Children comes from the Waccamaw Neck. He would like to see support grow among churches and community groups in the western part of the county.

There are also schools in the county that make few requests of the nonprofit, but where Gilbert believes there is a need for help. “I don’t think we’re as visible as we can be in the school system,” he said. “We need to have more direct contact.”

Dozier agreed the needs are widespread. “Regardless of where you go, there’s a number. If it’s one, it’s too many.”

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