Helping people cope – Demand grows

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Carol Hughes has been on the job for only nine months, but the former Duke Energy Corp. technology manager has moved quickly to help Crisis Assistance Ministry handle change.

Formed in 1975 by the Charlotte Clergy Association to improve support for people struggling with economic hardship, the nonprofit faces growing demand for its services.

In the year ended June 30, 2000, it gave financial assistance to nearly 20,000 people, and distributed nearly 500,000 items of donated clothing and furniture to more than 22,000 people.

The group also worked closely with 26 families for a year to help them better manage their finances – and will work with at least double that number this year through a $45,000 grant from Covenant Presbyterian Church.

And starting July 1, Mecklenburg County will contract with Crisis Assistance Ministry to administer the county’s $2 million emergency cash fund – reducing the county’s $700,000 administrative cost by about one-third.

The county will use its savings to work more closely with clients of Crisis Assistance on their long-term needs.

Hughes, who succeeded long-time executive Caroline Myers after 18 years at Duke Energy in a variety of technology jobs, is building technology and innovation into the nonprofit’s operations.

The group, with headquarters one mile from downtown Charlotte, hopes to open satellite offices beginning next year to serve the region’s growing population. A year-old office in Davidson, open two half-days a week, already sees 50 clients a month.

“We need to respond to the growth and need in this community,” Hughes says.

Technology will be critical in helping Crisis Assistance work more efficiently with its key partners, she said, mainly electric, gas and water companies that are paid half the funds the group distributes.

On an average day, for example, roughly 100 people visit the group’s main office, each generating three to five phone calls to utility companies — mainly to prevent service from being disconnected for unpaid bills.

Crisis Assistance is talking to Duke Energy and Piedmont Natural Gas about using electronic communications to help resolve clients’ problems.

Crisis Assistance hopes to be able to plug into a new Duke Energy customer-service Web site to track clients’ accounts, and to use  email to speed its ability to guarantee clients’ new accounts at Piedmont.

The nonprofit also plans to revamp its own Web site, using the site and email to better communicate with 200 active volunteers and others who together clocked more than 44,000 volunteer hours in the last fiscal year.

“We need to be able to respond to the fast-paced manner in which people in our community live,” Hughes says, “and we need to respond to their need for flexibility.”

Crisis Assistance also has created a committee to develop a strategy for securing planned gifts.

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