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Donations to local charities slow in months after attacks

By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 4, 2002

When terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, the Tampa Bay area struck back with blood and money.

When terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, the Tampa Bay area struck back with blood and money.

Hundreds of people lined up at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg on the theory they should donate blood for survivors.

Hillsborough County firefighters posted themselves on the streets to collect for the families of their New York counterparts. They held out open boots, which filled with green. At a single intersection they collected $25,000 in a matter of days.

In Pasco County, someone reached out to a firefighter's boot and dropped in a diamond ring, leaving the chief to wonder if it fell in by mistake.

But there was no mistaking American generosity after Sept. 11. More than $2-billion poured into coffers of the nation's top 10 charities for victims and family members affected by the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history.

Tampa Bay residents pulled out their credit cards and checkbooks readily.

"It was absolutely astounding. . . . I've never seen that kind of incredibly generous giving to a cause that wasn't even here," said Linda Osmundson, longtime executive director of the nonprofit Center Against Spouse Abuse in St. Petersburg.

But for some local charities, the giving had a flip side. Although national statistics suggest that Sept. 11 giving did not lessen charitable donations to other causes, contributions to many Tampa Bay area nonprofits slowed to a trickle immediately after the attacks.

"Immediately after Sept. 11, the funds just sort of dried up for about six weeks. So we estimated that we came up about $300,000 short during that time," said Karleen Kos, executive vice president of Metropolitan Ministries, which provides many services for the homeless and poor in Tampa.

"You could hardly tell people not to do it, because your heart just wanted something to do about that," Kos said. "Meanwhile, the needs just exploded."

Three months later, the Center Against Spouse Abuse held its Peace Breakfast, an annual fundraiser that has become so successful that some supporters have actually complained it has grown too large. But this breakfast brought in roughly $200,000 for CASA, compared with about $300,000 the year before, Osmundson said.

Religious Community Services, which operates a food pantry, a spouse abuse shelter and other social services in northern Pinellas County, sent out a "special appeal" letter for the first time this summer because contributions were lagging.

"There is so much generosity it's just mind-boggling," said Cynthia Fox, executive director of Pinellas Cares, which operates 211, a social service help line. Nonetheless, she said, "it always occurs to me that there are still children in this community who live on the street, sleep on the street."

She said she can't help wondering what would happen "if you could just bring that same compassion to people who live two blocks away."

Several executives of nonprofit organizations pointed out that an economic downturn also was to blame for lower contributions. The economy was faltering even before Sept. 11, but the attacks damaged Florida's tourism industry, so determining which came first is a chicken-and-egg question.

The United Way of Tampa Bay, which covers Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, was one of the few agencies that said local contributions did not suffer. Nonetheless, president Doug Weber said the nation's outpouring has made officials reflect. He said he wants to find a way to let people know about the local victims of rapes, drive-by shootings and smaller events that are less newsworthy but just as traumatic.

Local charities help those people every day, Weber said. And their pain and suffering "are not unsimilar to what people experienced in the tragedy of Sept. 11."

-- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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