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Giving Out

It has helped hundreds find work. But now Hilltop Promises is fighting for its own survival.

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Despite limited resources, Robert Humphrey and Carolann Pacer-Ramsey of Hilltop Promises say as the economy worsens they are serving more underemployed people. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Despite limited resources, Robert Humphrey and Carolann Pacer-Ramsey of Hilltop Promises say as the economy worsens they are serving more underemployed people.

Enter Hilltop Promises through its Broad Street entrance and you’ll find yourself inside a room that has all the trappings of a thrift store.

Robert Humphrey, Hilltop’s associate executive director, says people looking for social services will often walk in and look around, confused.

That was Humphrey’s experience. One year ago, he walked into Hilltop, a local charitable organization, one of dozens of homeless and unemployed locals who come in each day looking for assistance.

Today, he helps oversee the first-floor thrift store, which helps fund the organization, as well as the counseling service, which helps dozens of people each year re-enter the work force.

Richmond’s economic outlook remains gloomy. According to the latest report from the U.S. Department of Labor, the city’s unemployment rate is holding steady at 7 percent (statewide, the unemployment rate is 6.3 percent).

With local governments already straining to provide services to an increasing number of homeless and unemployed people, providers such as Hilltop Promises are picking up the slack. But as donor dollars become scarcer and competition for them increases, nonprofits such as Hilltop are finding it difficult to stay afloat.

“All charitable organizations have had to adapt to this new economic environment,” says Darcy Oman, chief executive of the Community Foundation, a nonprofit that oversees more than $600 million in endowments.

It’s especially hard for less-established charities such as Hilltop, which are often run by volunteers lacking professional marketing and management skills. Hilltop Promises was one of the 22,000 nonprofits in the state that recently had its tax-exempt status revoked by the Internal Revenue Service. Hilltop, like many others, failed to submit required tax documents for three consecutive years.

This new hurdle will make securing donations that much more difficult, admits Hilltop’s founder and executive director, Carolann Pacer-Ramsey. There are times, she says candidly, when they “barely have enough to cover the monthly bills.” She and Humphrey are currently in the process of applying for grant money from the city and state. But until that money materializes, she says, “we’re relying on donations and the grace of God.”

The nonprofit got its start in Willow Lawn back in 1989 under the name Christian Ministries United, catering mostly to needy families. As years passed, the mission began providing services to the city’s homeless and unemployed. Today, Hilltop is one of a handful of catch-all social service providers in the city.

From the makeshift offices on the second floor, Pacer-Ramsey, Humphrey and a rotating cast of staff volunteers and interns counsel people on anger management, parenting, résumé preparation, financial management and a host of other life skills.

Up the stairs, past the rows of discounted clothing, Hilltop’s offices are a no-frills work in progress. To the left is a bank of computers where Hilltop’s patrons learn how to apply for jobs online. In the center, a group of patrons huddle on couches, taking in coffee and the latest cable news reports. Others sit with Hilltop staffers, all of whom, Pacer-Ramsey and Humphrey included, work on a strictly volunteer basis.

As the economy teeters, Hilltop has found itself helping more and more of the newly unemployed. Hilltop has a daily intake that hovers around 60 new clients per day, estimates Humphrey. Ninety percent of those are also newly homeless, he says.

Thus far, he estimates that Hilltop has a fairly successful track record of not just helping their clients find jobs, but keeping them from sliding back into financial straits.

Most of those jobs, he says, are part-time or entry level. “My guys will take whatever you’re giving job-wise,” Pacer-Ramsey says.

But the needs for services are outpacing income at Hilltop. Humphrey and Pacer-Ramsey are hesitant to talk about their bottom line, but acknowledge that the organization is in immediate need of financial help. Revenue from downstairs thrift store covers only about 25 percent of Hilltop’s expenses. “We’re in no danger of closing,” Pacer-Ramsey says, “And we don’t want to get anywhere close to that.” S

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