What on earth are we here for, anyway?

What on earth are we here for, anyway?

By John Porter

If you follow the news these days, it seems hard to find anything positive going on. The Ebola virus has yet to be contained. The Islamic State is threatening the safety of people throughout the world.  Here in our region, the disappearance of a student from the University of Virginia has everyone on edge.  It is cause for concern, and has many of us questioning our place and purpose in the world as we consider ways in which we can support efforts to protect our communities and those in need.

W.H. Auden, considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, had it right when he said, “We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth others are here for I don’t know.” Auden, who died just over 40 years ago, was on to something. We are all here to help others. Many in our world are doing their best to live up to this expectation in a variety of ways — including right here in our community.

An important part of this intricate community of caring are the many wonderful nonprofit organizations working hard each day to address unmet needs and fill gaps in services for those who are the most vulnerable. A number of these nonprofits are members of a larger organization formed in 2006 to specifically deal with matters in the human services arena.  The Alexandria Council of Human Service Organizations (ACHSO) was specifically formed to provide a mechanism for nonprofits working in the human services field to convene and collaborate to improve services for Alexandria residents. ACHSO has accomplished this in a number of ways by providing workshops and grants to increase organizations’ effectiveness and broadening their reach in the delivery of services.

ACHSO has also taken the lead in commissioning research to better assess needs in Alexandria and to determine ways to improve the delivery of services for residents.  In 2008, ACHSO partnered with Braintree Solution Consulting to produce “A Comprehensive Needs Assessment of the Alexandria Human Services System,” and a number of recommendations from the assessment have been implemented.  For example, a recommendation to co-locate certain services led to the formation of The Center for Alexandria’s Children (CAC), which has proven to be extremely successful in both responding to and preventing child abuse and neglect. Another recommendation to establish family resource centers was responded to by Alexandria City Public Schools, an active member of ACHSO, who instituted a family resource center program that provides support for families of ACPS students.  Efforts have also been taken to provide more comprehensive information regarding programs and services to service providers and the general public at large, an important recommendation from the assessment.

In 2013, ACHSO commissioned a second study designed to provide a more detailed view of the impact of nonprofits in Alexandria, both on the service and economic fronts. “Return on Investment:  Alexandria Nonprofit Impact Report” concluded that Alexandria’s nonprofits, with particular reference to ACHSO organizations, serve more than 33 percent of Alexandria households by providing 98,000 meals, 4,000 “bed nights” in shelters and over 24,000 hours of tutoring and mentoring services annually. At the same time, ACHSO nonprofits are responsible for generating $206 million in revenue for the city, employing more than 2,000 individuals and utilizing more than 18,000 volunteers each year.

ACHSO will soon update the 2008 needs assessment, as much has changed since this pre-recession report was completed, with noted increases in requests for service and less direct funding being available to provide these services.  The hope is the revised study will provide additional information to support the needs of our residents in order to provide a better roadmap for addressing these community issues in the future.

We are fortunate that many in our community are doing what they can to make life easier for those facing unimaginable hardships.  I encourage you to step up, give what you can and remember W.H. Auden’s wise words — and words to live by.

More information regarding the details of the ACHSO reports can be found at www.achsova.org.

The writer is the president and CEO of ACT for Alexandria.