DUNEDIN — Betty Klemenz never had a driver's license. Everywhere she needed to go, her husband took her. Twenty years ago, he died.
Klemenz, 86, began to rely on friends to get her to the grocery store, to doctor appointments and to errands near her Clearwater home.
Then she discovered Faith in Action of Upper Pinellas.
"Every Monday, they come pick me up, take me shopping," Klemenz said. "I need them because I have no other way than to take a cab, and it's very expensive."
Since 1995, Faith in Action has been providing seniors and disabled people of northern Pinellas County with a means to remain independent. It provides transportation, an exercise program, light maintenance and house work and emergency cell phones. Volunteers help seniors balance checkbooks and read mail.
But like many nonprofit organizations during this dismal economic time, Faith in Action, which is based in Dunedin, is facing a budget shortfall jeopardizing its existence. It relies heavily on government grants and private donations.
"If we don't get any funding, it's going to be hard for us," said Carmen Wilson, the executive director. "We need about $100,000 between now and this summer. The economy has an unintended consequence on those who are already the most vulnerable."
Wilson said the troubles started in March. She said the grants she applied for either didn't come through or were cut. During the 20007-08 fiscal year, she received a $10,000 grant from Pinellas County, but was denied the grant the following year. Over the last several years, Dunedin has continued but reduced its grant from $15,000 to $12,000.
"I'm trying to get all the cities where we provide services to help us the way Dunedin does," Wilson said. "We help residents from Ulmerton Road in Largo all the way up to Tarpon Springs."
The number of seniors in Faith in Action's Strong For Life exercise classes have jumped from 46 to 735 over about the last five years. The number of care receivers has increased from 168 in 2007 to 263. More than 1,000 Pinellas County residents are touched by Faith in Action's services, Wilson said.
Leonora Matarrese of Clearwater is one those. A widow, she boards a Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church van every Monday that's driven by Walter Harding, who volunteers for Faith In Action. She has been using the service for 10 years.
"There's about 11 of us girls and we go into Dunedin and other places and do our shopping," Matarrese, 85, said. "He comes right in front of our house and he helps with our packages and he gives us time. A lot of us are using canes and having trouble walking. Walter helps us in and out of the bus. The service is extremely helpful.
"And they have lovely parties for the holidays, Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving. The food is free and we enjoy it so much."
Esther Watts is 52 and has epilepsy. She can't drive because her seizures are unpredictable. Faith in Action gives her rides to the pharmacy and doctors.
"Other services refused to help me because I wasn't older than 55 and they think with epilepsy, you can catch the bus," said Watts, who has been using the service for about a year and half. "Nothing against seniors older than 55, but there are some who are younger with disability. Faith in Action has been the one that has been giving me the most support.
"Just being there to talk to when you need somebody to talk to has been a great help."
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at email@example.com or 727-445-4174.