TUPELO – Wednesday afternoon, Maj. Sue Dorman had trimmed the air-conditioner back considerably, and a dab of perspiration showed under her tired eyes.
Dorman and her office mates at the Salvation Army were doing everything they could to save a few bucks since learning, three-quarters of the way through their fiscal year, that they were facing the possibility of having to cut staff or programs in order to survive.
“We’re somewhere from $60,000, $80,000 behind where we were last year in donations,” said Dorman, the Salvation Army’s highest ranking officer in Northeast Mississippi.
As if decreased donations weren’t enough, the organization has seen revenue declines from its four thrift stores in Tupelo, New Albany, Amory and Booneville. The stores, on which it relies to pump $160,000 into its social services programs each year, have yielded only about a quarter of that money.
It all adds up to a perfect storm of financial hardship for the Salvation Army, which has seen a steady increase in demand for its services since the country went into recession more than two years ago.
“As recently as last year we were only at 65 percent occupancy in our lodge,” said Dorman, speaking of the homeless shelter the Army operates on Carnation Street. “Now, almost every night, we’re at 100 percent.”
The Salvation Army has a been a philanthropic fixture in Tupelo since 1972, providing toys for children with the annual Christmas Angel Tree and feeding thousands with its Thanksgiving meal.
Last month the organization served nearly 8,000 free meals and gave away more than 700 pieces of clothing to those in need.
Every month it helps dozens of the area’s poor pay their electric and utility bills and assists them in obtaining medication when nobody else will.
To provide those services, the Tupelo Salvation Army relies heavily on donations in its annual budget of slightly more than $1 million.
The United Way supplements the Army’s mission with $140,000 each year, and various grants sometimes help, but generosity is the engine that drives the organization’s efforts, and these days folks aren’t giving like the used to.
Connie Snell, who owns a wholesale clothing company, for years has donated time, money and clothes to the Salvation Army.
“A lot of the Army’s volunteer work is seasonal, but I helped with Angel Tree and bell-ringing, you name it,” she said. In January 2009, Snell started really feeling the pinch financially.
She’s had to let go 11 employees, which amounts to about a third of her work force, and that’s meant increasing her own hours from 15 each week to 60.
She said it breaks her heart, but she just doesn’t have the time or the money to give anymore.
“My financial contributions are down about 10 percent, and I might be able to spend 30 minutes a week there, now,” she said.
There’s been some occasional relief for the Army, coming both from local businesses and from the state headquarters. Several Tupelo businesses, like Sam’s and Atlanta Bread Company, regularly give food for the organization to disperse, but it doesn’t go far as the chow lines increase.
The Salvation Army’s district headquarters, in Jackson, also has allowed the Tupelo regional office to defer its monthly service payments, but that can only go on for so long.
Dorman can’t imagine cutting services, and speaking Wednesday with the organization’s accountant, Pam Walters, she was adamant that they continue things like the after-school program, which each week provides 50 children with academic help.
“We actually go into the hole, financially, on that program,” said Walters.
Unless more money starts coming in, the organization will have to make cuts somewhere.
The Army employs 28 people, most of them part time, who throughout a four-county area do everything from cooking to providing social services to answering phones.
“I hate to say it, but we might have to cut hours,” said Dorman, adding that many employees, like the seven school teachers who serve in various roles, work only 15 hours per week.
Frugality has always been a high priority around the Carnation Street office. On the rare occasions when staff, like Greg Kagrise, travel, they stay in discount hotels and eat fast food.
Wednesday, Kagrise entered Dorman’s office with a look of sheepish understanding.
The two employees nodded and smiled as they examined receipts for a recent, overnight trip Kagrise took. “It’s OK,” Kagrise told Dorman as he left the room. “There’s no hurry.”
The Salvation Army recently started offering free classes on money management. Among other things, they’re designed to help people who’ve just begun receiving disability figure out how to make that money last.
A lot of those people sleep in the Army’s lodge each night, and Dorman, wiping sweat from under her eyes, said she and her staff are trying to set an example.
“Every little bit,” Dorman said, pressing her forefinger against her temple as if massaging away a headache. “Every little bit means a lot these days.”
Contact Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal