Even in the throes of another pandemic year, East Bay Times readers have been reaching into their pockets this season to help those less fortunate by donating money to the nonprofits that serve them.

Moved by stories of neighbors in need, readers have donated a record $535,722 to this news agency’s annual Share the Spirit campaign as of January 20. The money will be donated to 56 nonprofit organizations in Contra Costa and Alameda counties that provide essential services to the working poor, homeless, hungry and others without luck.

Sharon Ryan, publisher of the Bay Area News Group, was impressed with the support. “The annual Share the Spirit campaign is one of the most important things we do,” she said.

“The powerful storytelling of our reporters combined with the generosity of the community we serve” resulted in another banner year, added Ryan.

Share the Spirit’s totals jumped about $30,000 from last season, which also set a record, said Dee Dee Robillard, director of community projects for the media group. Share the Spirit and its companion program in the South Bay, Wish Book, raised more than $1.4 million combined, the second year in a row their totals topped $1 million, marking a level of donor generosity far more higher than before the pandemic.

“We are always very grateful for the response and the community,” Robillard said. “The pandemic has exacerbated the problems of many people who were on the brink. They missed paychecks or the (number of) people asking for food aid increased dramatically. … Mental health crises are also accelerating due to the isolation of the pandemic.

Now in its 28th year, Share the Spirit is supported by individual, foundation and corporate contributions. Since its inception, the Dean and Margaret Lesher Foundation has provided one of the program’s largest supporters, and this year was no exception as it donated $40,000. Bay Area News Group added thousands more employees and matching donations this year, Robillard said.

Contributions are expected to benefit more than 50,000 people, she added.

The East Bay Times stories featured nonprofits such as Trinity Center Walnut Creek, which provides opportunities and support services for the homeless and working poor; Swords to Plowshares, which helps veterans; St. Vincent de Paul, a safety net for the homeless; Rising Sun Center for Opportunity; Open Heart Kitchen; Meals on Wheels; and the Rainbow Community Center of Contra Costa County, which promotes equity.

Robillard said readers were particularly moved by stories about the Winter Nights family shelter, Hijas del Campo (field girls) and the veterans accession house.

Bill Shaw, executive director of Winter Nights, said Share the Spirit’s donations helped his nonprofit motel clients when his shelter was short-staffed and helped other clients pay their bills. Winter Nights operates a family shelter for parents and children, a homeless parking program, and a “Continuing Success” program that helps former clients stay housed.

“There are not enough agencies or enough money to meet the growing needs of homeless people,” he said.

Besides money, Shaw said the Times story helped spread awareness of Winter Nights, prompting some residents to donate blankets and sheets. “It was just another blessing,” he said.

Leonard Ramirez, founder of the Veterans Accession House of Contra Costa County, which shelters and helps homeless veterans, said the publicity about his largely unknown five-year program was invaluable. A photograph even linked a veteran to a longtime friend who was in South America when he saw the story online.

“So they’re connected now,” he said.

Marivel Mendoza, co-founder and president of Hijas del Campo, said she was happy to hear from many readers touched by a story about her year-long group, created during the pandemic to feed and hydrate farm workers. It has since expanded to offer rent relief and pop-up vaccination clinics.

“I love it because it really gets the word out about who our team is and how campesinos and the work they do,” she said. “It’s just a big problem. … We want people to recognize people who are still working even in COVID.

Many workers or their relatives have contracted the virus – especially those living in multi-generational homes – but for some there have been no stimulus checks because they are undocumented. That’s another reason the donations have been so helpful, Mendoza said.

The group will receive several thousand dollars this year which will be used to buy fresh food, water and school supplies, as well as to help campesinos pay the bills. “What this grant has done for us is tremendous,” Mendoza said.

But sometimes it’s the little essentials like soap for clothes that make a big difference, she noted.

“That’s dignity,” Mendoza said, “and that’s what we also want to help promote and push.”

To read this year’s stories of people helped by the nonprofit grants, go to www.sharethespiriteastbay.org/.

The Share the Spirit Vacation Campaign, sponsored by the Bay Area News Group, serves needy residents of Alameda and Contra Costa counties by funding nonprofit vacation and outreach programs. To make a tax-deductible contribution, clip the coupon accompanying this story or go to www.sharethespiriteastbay.org/donate. Readers with questions, and individuals or companies wishing to make significant contributions, may contact the Share the Spirit program at 925-655-8355 or [email protected]