File photo by Marcy Stamper

File photo by Marcy Stamper

By Marcy Stamper 

In just the first six months of this year, Okanogan County Transportation & Nutrition (OCTN) served more than 68,000 senior meals in four counties and provided more than 21,000 door-to-door rides in Okanogan County alone.

The agency has managed all this despite cuts from its regular funders. Because of the across-the-board federal reductions anticipated from sequestration, money OCTN typically receives from Aging & Adult Care of Central Washington was eliminated in January, said Leanne Whitener, executive director of OCTN.

OCTN counts on those funds to balance its budget, but the cuts locked them in at last year’s level – a deficit, Whitener said.

OCTN provides meals at senior centers and delivers meals to home-bound seniors in Okanogan, Chelan, Douglas and Lincoln counties, where the agency works with 17 senior centers in 17 cities and towns. Many of the municipalities are able to contribute, but some are so small that they can only help with reduced rents, said Whitener. The senior centers themselves typically do not contribute.

OCTN also provides door-to-door transportation in Okanogan County for seniors, people with disabilities, and the general public. OCTN is a private nonprofit and all services are funded solely through grants, donations and fares.

As seniors and the others OCTN serves have struggled with the difficult economy, individuals’ contributions for meals – which are always voluntary – have dropped by 31 cents per meal, said Whitener. The average donation this year has been $2.69 per person, down from about $3 last year, which translates into a loss of $16,000 for the agency.

“We don’t push – we don’t want anyone to feel badly or not come,” Whitener said.

This year OCTN has had to contribute $48,000 from community funds and its own cash reserves to cover costs, but the organization needs $32,000 to make it to the end of the year, said Whitener.

 

At risk

Without OCTN’s programs, there is the chance that the people now served could be at risk nutritionally or no longer be able to live independently, said Whitener. While the agency is serving slightly more people this year than in the past, it is not a big increase – OCTN is primarily trying to maintain its existing services, said Whitener.

OCTN is now turning to local governments for contributions to sustain its programs. The organization sent a fundraising appeal last week explaining its circumstances.

“I recognize this is a difficult time for everyone, but our services help the most vulnerable of our communities,” said Whitener in the request.

This year, Winthrop and Omak both cut their funding for OCTN, a reduction of more than $5,000. In fact, in Okanogan County OCTN receives less than $10,000 all-told from the cities, towns and county government. In Chelan, Douglas and Lincoln counties, the agency received about $14,000 this year. Another $6,500 is dedicated to replace aging buses.

Many of the contributions are tiny. Okanogan County’s Emergency Food and Shelter fund provides $800 a year, and OCTN gets a few cents per meal from a state nutrition-incentive program. Other funds, such as $4,000 that United Way donated in Chelan and Douglas counties, and money from the state Emergency Food and Shelter program, have also dried up.

OCTN has also been affected by the increase in the state’s minimum wage, higher utility bills and increased costs of fuel, food and other supplies.

“At this point, I’m just searching for every penny I can find,” said Whitener, who noted in her fundraising request that she has never seen problems this severe in the 22 years she has been with OCTN.