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Lack of volunteers, COVID takes down longtime Sauk Valley charity

“COVID really shot us down,” president of Good Neighbor Emergency Center says

STERLING – A drop in volunteers, the aging of the few remaining volunteers and, to some extent, the threat presented by COVID-19 tolled the death knell for one longtime local charity.

The Good Neighbor Emergency Center, a coalition of about 14 area congregations, Tuesday signed its articles of dissolution after 30 years of helping low-income people pay utility bills, gasoline and other needs, said Phil Gronbach, president of the nonprofit’s board.

The center provided “a modest amount” of help from its fund of $25,000 to $30,000 a year, often supplementing aid from other groups like the Tri-County Opportunities Council in Rock Falls.

It had a little less than $13,000 left when its board voted in November to disband, and distributed the remaining money to five other area nonprofits that do the same kind of work, said Gronbach, pastor emeritus at New Life Lutheran Church in Sterling.

The center, which was based at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Sterling, was funded by donations from area congregations of all denominations, and from community members.

Before the coronavirus hit, it helped 500 to 600 families a year; that number dropped significantly during the pandemic, Gronbach said, adding that at one point, safety concerns had them opening windows to talk with clients outside the church.

“COVID really shot us down,” he said.

The biggest problem, though, was the inability to get volunteers to replace the current ones, who are in their 70s and 80s, he said.

“So many other organizations also are losing volunteers. Really, it’s the people in early retirement who could step up and do those things,” but for whatever reason, that’s not happening, he said.

Between those two factors, “it’s just been difficult to really do our job.”

Kathleen Schultz

Kathleen A. Schultz

Kathleen Schultz is a Sterling native with 40 years of reporting and editing experience in Arizona, California, Montana and Illinois.