More than 225 people — diverse in race and religion — gathered in the fellowship hall at Little Rock AME Zion Church Tuesday evening.

The topic? “Can we talk to each other in difficult economic times?” The un-named subtopic? What can ordinary people do to assist the needy among us?

With the nation mired in recession, local charities are hurting. The United Way last week cut funding to other local charities by 35 percent overall. The Arts & Science Council announced dramatic cuts as well. At the same time, some local charities say demand for services is up 35 to 50 percent.

At Tuesday’s meeting, attendees said it would take a grassroots effort to meet the funding gap.

“We have to find a way to keep our personal hope and help others find hope,” said Mecklenburg County General Manager John McGillicuddy, one of several panelists to address the group.

Others on the panel were: former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, Crisis Assistance Ministry Director Carol Hardison, Latin American Coalition Executive Director Angeles Ortega-Moore and Charlotte Observer Editor Rick Thames.

The date of the meeting was chosen purposefully. June 30 not only marked the end of the fiscal year for many nonprofits, it also marked the beginning of severe funding cuts for some.

McGillicuddy acknowledged that 49 county employees no longer have jobs because of budget cuts. He said he understands what it feels like to be unemployed because he, too, has experienced long-term unemployment.

Gantt reminding the crowd of President Obama’s “A more perfect union” speech from March 2008. Rather than panic, Gantt said, everyday citizens must remember that “we are our brother’s keeper.”

“We need to feel the pain by giving more, give until it hurts,” he said.

Some in the audience called for a strategic plan. If the community can develop such a vision and set clear goals, funding will follow, said Hardison, of Crisis Assistance Ministry.

Willie Ratchford, executive director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations committee, called for more collaboration, saying more people must open their eyes to the poor and downtrodden.

“No one of us is as good as all of us,” he said.

Mecklenburg Commissioner Vilma Leake later told Qcitymetro that all anyone has to do is look around to see who is suffering most. Some segments of society have always suffered, she said.

“Power to the people,” Leake said, “This is about the grassroots.”

The meeting ended with no firm plan to address the funding shortfalls, but organizers said the conversation will continue.

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