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Gas prices 
gnaw at charities

(Sarah Nader –
Volunteer Jody Mead of Crystal Lake drops off a hot meal to Russell Mauer of Crystal Lake while volunteering with The Salvation Army’s Golden Diners program. At least once a week for the past 11 years, Mead has volunteered with various charities that offer meals to homebound seniors. The program is seeing fewer volunteers as gas prices continue to climb and has been forced to cut staff in other areas to pay for part-time drivers.

Escalating gas prices and a lethargic economy born of the 2008 recession have caused workers to adjust commutes, businesses to rethink travel reimbursements and families to take “staycations.”

Charitable organizations in McHenry County that rely on volunteers to provide services to home-bound seniors are no different. The organizations and drivers themselves have limited financial resources to meet ever-growing demand.

“It seems like every year it whittles away,” Salvation Army Maj. Ken Nichlai said of volunteer drivers caught short by higher gas prices and daily living expenses. “They want to do it for free, and they want to do it for nothing, but there’s a cost involved with running their vehicle,” he said.

Nichlai oversees The Salvation Army’s Golden Diner program in McHenry and Kane counties. He has a shrinking number of volunteers who drive at least 30 miles each day to deliver hot meals to 1,900 seniors who use the program.

An average Illinois driver pays $3.92 a gallon for regular gas, according to AAA reports. That’s up from $3.52 a gallon in October 2011. Nationally, drivers pay an average of $3.78 a gallon, up from $3.41 a gallon a year ago.

In an indication of the economic times, the Internal Revenue Service last summer made a rare midyear move and increased the tax deduction rate for business travel, which also applies in volunteer work, to 55.5 cents per mile from 51 cents.

Escalating costs have caused Nichlai to cut his administrative budget, reorganize staff and start looking for paid, part-time drivers to make up for the loss in volunteers.

He currently has 11 volunteer drivers, down from 15 last year and 24 volunteers before the recession.

More volunteers are requesting The Salvation Army’s modest gas reimbursement of 14 cents a mile, too, Nichlai said.

“It gets pretty sad when people can’t afford to volunteer, especially for a program like this – when they have to make a personal investment into their volunteer activity,” he said.

Similar volunteer-organizations, such as Faith in Action in Crystal Lake and Senior Services Associates in McHenry County, also have seen a spike in reimbursement requests.

A shortage in county grant money means Faith in Action won’t have enough money to provide reimbursements for the next two months, officials said.

The organization uses almost 400 volunteers to provide services for seniors in the county. Almost 60 percent of requests are from seniors who need some form of transportation assistance, said Executive Director Sarah Ponitz.

The mostly retired volunteers take seniors to doctors’ appointments, grocery stores and hair salons.

In an attempt to counter high gas prices, the organization has tried to pair volunteers with seniors who live near one another, and so far, it has yet to see a drop-off in its volunteer base.

“The comment I get is ‘It’s tough,’ ” said Susan McCoy, Faith in Action volunteer coordinator. “People are expressing the challenge, but it’s not causing them to quit.”

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