Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

CHRISTMAS GIVING CHOOSING THE MOST DESERVING CAN BE A DEMANDING, HEART-WRENCHING JOB Series: 100 Neediest Cases

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

CHRISTMAS GIVING CHOOSING THE MOST DESERVING CAN BE A DEMANDING, HEART-WRENCHING JOB Series: 100 Neediest Cases

Article excerpt

What happens when you lack enough lights for your Christmas tree? Does it sap your spirit, or can you still find the beauty in what you've got?

The tree in the lobby of the United Way building looks as if it's a few strands short. But it's upstairs on the fourth floor where volunteers for the 100 NEEDIEST CASES really struggle to stretch a little bit of light and hope to impoverished area residents - and to maintain their own good cheer.

Five dozen volunteers have spent months culling through 10,500 requests for aid - 100 of which are profiled in the Post-Dispatch. The most wrenching part of their duty, the volunteers say, is making gut-level decisions about who gets what, and who doesn't.

The strain sets in when contributions lag as they have been in the early going of the campaign. As of Friday, St. Louisans had donated $375,000 - about $65,000 less than last year at the same point. Volunteers hope the cold weather reminds residents to share the warmth.

All the cases, which have been nominated by 107 social service agencies, will receive at least $50. But some - those who are adopted by families and businesses, and those who get publicity - will get more. But how much more?

Genice Self was one of the volunteers who helped choose cases to be profiled in the Post-Dispatch. "It was terrible," she said, wincing. "I wanted to put every other one into that pile." While playing judge, she found herself fruitlessly comparing families - how many children there are, how much aid they already get, whether they have insurance - to help justify her decisions.

She worries, too, that needy families who know each other will feel hurt if one receives more help than another. "If one family gets adopted by a whole office full of people and another family gets $50, does it make them feel unworthy?"

When donors call the Neediest Cases office, looking for a family to adopt, they often specify that they want a family with children or someone who is elderly or handicapped. A volunteer will rifle through boxloads of unadopted cases and mail out half a dozen with potential. Volunteer Susan Adolf tries to send cases that reflect sudden hardship within families that were trying to help themselves: "People who got laid off or had an illness that sent life spiraling down," she explained.

The ones that aren't chosen circle back into the files. If the mailed reports are compelling enough, sometimes a donor will adopt more than one family, said Self, who, with her own family, has adopted two cases.

Sadly, said Self, when overworked caseworkers don't provide volunteers with a detailed enough description of a family's plight, it lessens the chances of that family being adopted. "The more there is to tug at your heart, the more your heart will be tugged," she said. Getting `Warm Fuzzies'

It's also frustrating when needy families who aren't registered with the program call to ask for help, says a volunteer; even worse is the rare family that calls to complain that they didn't receive enough aid. …

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