University City

Small charity leaders dig deep in bad economy

Last year, Clair Lane sat in a local grocer's office and talked turkey. Then ham.

She tried to persuade the merchant to sell both to her for a discounted price. By their conversation's end, he agreed to let the hams go for $5 each and the turkeys for 59 cents a pound.

For 10 years, Lane, a retired social worker from New Jersey, and the five others who work with her behind Our Foundation for Children, have scrambled and bargained, scraped and persuaded and dug deep into their own pockets to feed, clothe and mentor needy and at-risk kids in Charlotte's University City.

"I find that all kids want is some attention," said Lane, who spent years as a social worker in New Jersey and in Queens, N.Y., helping struggling families find solid ground. "If you say you love a kid, they're your friend for life, because they're not getting it at home."

It's not well-known like the United Way or Salvation Army, but Our Foundation for Children tries to make a difference.

Founded in 2001 by Lane and her husband, Alan Lane, a retired businessman, the nonprofit has provided thousands of backpacks filled with every school supply item on the list.

It also has rustled up plenty of used musical instruments so schools could have band classes, and brought hundreds of sacks of groceries to needy families who struggle to put food on the table.

They hold health fairs, recruiting community physicians and nurses to give students eye, ear and dental exams to identify problems that could undermine their learning.

They mentor and tutor area school kids, too, taking them to UNC Charlotte and Duke University for tours and showing them that they do matter to someone.

The Lanes have had success with children before; together, they've raised seven.

"We have five master's (degrees) and one Ph.D.," said Alan Lane, who holds several psychology degrees. "That's why I'm doing this. I know how to do it. I did it with them."

Clair Lane wishes more people in the community would step up: "If we had mentors, we wouldn't have the problems we're having now."

The Lanes believe if they can get to at-risk kids while they're in middle school, they can turn their lives around.

In the past few years, though, the recession made that goal more difficult to reach.

"We can see the heavy financial pressures that are on families, through the kids," Alan Lane said.

It's not just the poor families who ask for help, said Vianne Howitt, event coordinator for the foundation.

"Last year, we had people coming to us that were downright embarrassed," Howitt said. "They said, 'It's all I can do to make my mortgage and keep a little bit of food in the house each week. Is there any way we can get toys or something for our kids? Because they've never not had a Christmas.' These are middle-class kids."

As with many other charitable organizations, the wheels of the foundation are stuck in the mud of the financial downturn. It's getting harder to help those in need.

Money is drying up. Grants are competitive. Regular contributors now say they can give only every other year.

Small organizations like Our Foundation for Children sometimes have to stand behind larger charities for corporate donations.

That has forced the Lanes to make changes.

What was once a standard hot meal served around the holidays for families turned into a spaghetti dinner for only the children last year. This year, they will most likely provide no hot meal at all.

"Right now money is tight, and we don't have any sponsors," Clair Lane said.

Everybody seems to be scrambling, Howitt said.

"We asked around various food banks and instead of having extra for us," she said. "They were like, 'If you have anything left over, please bring it to us.' Their pantries were bare."

This summer, Howitt dug into her family inheritance and spent $15,000 on fully stocked backpacks for more than 1,000 local students.

Everyone at the foundation wishes they had that kind of money again during the holidays.

Even so, Clair Lane said, they plan to help this season any way they can.

"Our organization has no money, but we always find a way to do something."