Misery gripped the Great Plains in the 1890s as drought and financial depression took a toll on farmers and city folk alike.
Three successive years of crop failures left livestock starving, caused land prices to plunge and prompted some to abandon the state. Omaha's population, which had exploded in the 1880s, dropped by 40,000 in the 1890s, and homelessness became a public concern.
It was in those dark days that the earliest version of Goodfellows, The World-Herald's charity, was born.
Following the financial panic of 1893, banks and businesses closed. With the city in the midst of a three-year depression, The World-Herald in 1894 asked readers to "Throw Out the Towline" to help. Several World-Herald staff members solicited donations, and the paper opened a relief bureau on Farnam Street.
The World-Herald's "towline" continued until 1910, when it was renamed Goodfellows.
In 1945, the program was converted to a nonprofit charitable corporation, and Goodfellows began tracking donations. Since 1945, the charity has raised and distributed nearly $13 million.
Joel Long, executive director of Goodfellows, said the program is unique in that all of the money goes directly to pay the bills of those in need. "Not a dime" is See Goodfellows: kept for World-Herald administrative costs, he said.
Local social service agencies chip in by providing staff to identify families in need. The agencies are United Way of the Midlands, Heartland Family Service, ENCAP and Together Inc.
Money raised from Goodfellows, a record $659,192.80, in 2014, is distributed in the following ways:
One-time emergency aid to a family or individual in crisis through direct payment of a bill. The money goes directly to the landlord, utility, doctor or other entity owed money. About 80 percent of donations are used in this manner.
Socks and underwear for children: Late each summer, the families of 1,000 children receive $20 vouchers per child to purchase new underclothes and socks so that kids can go to school in the fall properly dressed. The program is administered by Holy Family Catholic Church in cooperation with Gordmans stores.
Shoe and clothing fund for children: If a student in the Omaha Public Schools comes to classes poorly clad on a winter day, school personnel can provide a Goodfellows voucher for a coat or pair of shoes, through the Project Help program. Or, if a child experiences an accident and soils his or her underclothes, the school nurse can provide new underwear and sweatpants.
Groceries for the holidays: Food vouchers for local stores to purchase the fixings for a holiday meal. The voucher is valued at $24 for the first person and $8 apiece for each subsequent family member.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1102, firstname.lastname@example.org
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