Since last fall, two dozen churches and human services agencies around Indiana County have been combining their efforts and their dollars to respond to calls for help in a new way. They’ve assisted in paying utility bills and rent, helped buy prescription medicines, fixed faulty furnaces, put food on tables and got cars running and back on the road so people could get to their jobs.
The help has been channeled through Project Share, a collaborative effort by churches and agencies to share resources and information. Project Share is coordinated by the Indiana County Department of Human Services.
Bonni Dunlap, the department’s executive director, believes the number of churches and human services agencies willing to assist — and the number of county residents who will need emergency domestic help — are both going to grow.
The seeds for Project Share were planted last year when some human services leaders discussed consolidating and coordinating some of the many assistance programs conducted during the Christmas season. Dunlap credits Charles Spadafora, president of the local Society of St. Vincent de Paul, with moving the concept ahead.
“He spurred us on,” Dunlap said.
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, backed by four Catholic parishes in Indiana County, was already financially helping several needy individuals and families each week and provides thousands of dollars in aid annually.
The goal of Project Share, Dunlap said, is “to make sure there’s not a duplication across the agencies” and to leverage the resources for help available in local agencies and churches.
At the heart of Project Share is a computerized spreadsheet, or database, maintained by the county’s department of human services on Google. Only the participating partners of Project Share can access the spreadsheet using a password assigned to them.
When a person or family in need asks a Project Share partner for assistance, they are often first referred to established health and human services agencies, such as the Indiana County Community Action Program or the county’s Department of Human Services, where varied types of assistance are available.
If a Project Share partner can lend a helping hand, some basic demographic information — including the name, address and date of birth of the person in need — is entered on the spreadsheet. There are also columns where information on the type and amount of help provided can be entered. That sharing of information on the spreadsheet can leverage additional assistance available in the county.
Dunlap said one of the Project Share partners, a church, was recently helping a family pay for a shipment of home heating fuel. The total bill was $425, more than the one church could afford on its own, so it sent an email out to the other partners, asking if someone else could kick in some cash, too.
“Two churches responded” with the rest of the needed money, Dunlap said. “It happened within half an hour.”
When agreeing to accept assistance through Project Share, clients sign a release form acknowledging that basic information about them will be listed on the database. And partners joining the Project Share network sign a contract with the county agreeing to keep the spreadsheet information confidential.
Some of the required demographic information serves as a safeguard to avoid abuse of the program, Dunlap said.
Each agency or church participating as a Project Share partner has its own discretionary fund and decides, using its own screening process, if it can help the person in need with the resources it has. Most partners have an application form to gather basic information from the person or family seeking aid, and some partners have limits on how often they will financially help the same person within certain time frames. The local Society of St. Vincent de Paul, for example, generally will assist a client once in a 12-month period.
The Project Share partners are not only interested in addressing needs but their causes, and so some offer basic counseling services.
The program was launched in November, and as of Wednesday it had helped 571 clients, most of them Indiana County residents.
“We are surprised at how fast it has grown,” Dunlap said. “We know there’s a lot of capacity” for more people in need to be added to the database.
But, she added, there is also more resource capacity that could be tapped because there are more than 200 churches and about 90 health and human services agencies in the county.
“There’s a lot of examples of how it’s working very well,” Dunlap said. During January’s sub-zero weather the network was also used to spread information on where emergency warming centers were open.
Churches or agencies wanting more information on becoming Project Share partners should contact Dunlap at (724) 463-8200, ext. 11.