New IRS employee donation rules concern Northern Kentucky nonprofits

COVINGTON, Ky. -- Angela Fessler isn't likely to forget Christmas 2012, and neither is her son, Gabriel.

Fessler's 6-year-old son couldn't believe what Santa brought him and placed under the tree -- a brand new bicycle.

"He was the happiest kid on Christmas and that meant more to me than anything," Fessler said while fighting back tears in her Covington apartment.

Providing for Gabriel hasn't been easy for Fessler, since she's on Social Security disability and has a tough time making ends meet financially.

"First of the month I get everything that I need," she said. "The 'wants' is the one thing that I struggle with."

Gabriel's bicycle was a definite want, but out of the family's financial reach.

That's when the OASIS Center in Covington stepped in to help. Fueled by donations from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) employees in Covington, OASIS made sure the youngster's dream came true.

However, leaders of many agencies like OASIS and Elsmere's United Christian Volunteers worry they may not be able to provide Christmas toys and holiday meals for their clients this year.

That's because the IRS has modified the rules on who can solicit its employees. Agencies wishing to do so must first be authorized by the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC).

Over 3,000 organizations are CFC-approved, including 348 of them in Greater Cincinnati. Last year, Covington IRS employees donated a total of $237,000 to local, national and international charities.

That included OASIS and United Christian Volunteers, but that won't be the case this year. Neither group is registered, although any charity can apply for authorization.

That's quite a difference from the way things worked in the past.

The Way Things Were

The year was 1978 when IRS employees Gert Hennessey and Nancy Weiss decided to help a less fortunate family for Christmas. The pair found a woman with two small children. They provided toys for the tots, some new clothing and a turkey dinner.

The next year several other co-workers wanted to get involved. Two more families were identified and helped. Things were growing so fast that Weiss and Hennessey decided to contact a local agency to make the connection with needy families.

The Northern Kentucky Community Center (NKCC) was chosen and Director Bennie Doggett had a list ready with the names of plenty of worthy families from the east side of Covington.

When NKCC closed, Doggett moved on to become the executive director of OASIS (Offering Assistance Substance and Support) and continued to work with Weiss and Hennessey.

Other groups came on board as well. United Christian Volunteers was added along with the Pike Street Clinic, St. Vincent de Paul, Transitions and Droege House.

The result was a tradition involving 800 employees and raising around $10,000 per year for OASIS, United Christian Volunteers and the other organizations.

"IRS people would buy gifts and provide dinners for people that were needy," Weiss said. "In those three decades, IRS employees took care of over 500 people a year -- gave them Christmas."

Weiss said it wasn't an IRS-sanctioned event, but employees flocked to help.

Each year in early October, she'd send an internal email to employees seeking assistance. Those who responded were told what a particular family needed and the employee would go get it.

"Gert (who has since passed away) and I decided that the people needed to get new gifts," she said. "They get used gifts, used things all year long, but for Christmas these kids needed new things."

However, things came crashing to a halt on Nov. 1, 2012.

Times Have Changed But The Needs Remain The Same

Weiss received an email indicating that 2012 would be the last year the IRS community would participate in the Christmas family request for United Christian Volunteers or OASIS.

"Our CIRSC Charity organization identifies and assists employees on the campus and all of our resources will be utilized in-house starting January 1,2013," the email noted.

That severed Weiss' ability to communicate directly with IRS workers.

"I asked them if there was something we did wrong and they said, 'No.'" she recalled. "We cannot use IRS property. We cannot use IRS phones. We cannot use IRS email. It cannot be through IRS."

Now, OASIS and United Christian Volunteers are scrambling for ways to fill the financial void.

"Right now we're really in a bind," Doggett said. "Just yesterday I had a total of five residents that have called asking to be put on the Adopt-A-Family list and I have to tell them that right now we do not have a list."

Doggett said losing the IRS support comes as food stamps and day care funding have been cut and jobs are hard for many people to find.

"Low income people are having such a hard time in Covington," she said. "We want to make sure that this Christmas be the best Christmas that kids in the community can have."

The sentiment is the same at United Christian Volunteers in Elsmere.

The all-volunteer agency relies on donations of food, closing and furniture and the sale of some items in its thrift shop to fund its mission of helping others.

Director Charles Lambert said 80 to 85 percent of what is distributed at Christmas comes from the IRS gift program.

"It's going to be a big deficit if we're not able to depend on that support this year," he said. "The clients are concerned. They realize it may be a sparse Christmas this year. They're understanding, but they're still hopeful that something can be worked out."

Former director Linda Baynum and a United Christian Volunteers supporter, hopes that's the case as well.

"It was never an IRS project," she said. "It was the employees of the IRS project. It had nothing to do with the IRS itself."

Baynum said with the IRS' help the goal always has been to provide each child with one really nice gift and maybe three or four smaller items. But that goal may need to change.

"Without the help of the IRS people or someone else, we're not going to be able to do that," she added. "We'll be lucky maybe to be able to give one small toy. We don't want it to be that way. We want to remember it's the children. It's their Christmas."

While the IRS limits groups soliciting employees to those that are authorized, it doesn't mean that workers on their own can't contact outside agencies and make donations.

That's what Fessler hopes happens. She wants more families to see their children smiling on the morning of December 25 the way Gabriel did in 2012.

"It's not about me. It's about my kid," she said. "Not just my kid. The families' kids."

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