Saline Area Social Service to Move to New Home, Community Fundraising Effort Has Begun

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Saline Area Social Service, the local nonprofit that provides a food bank and other services for residents facing financial difficulties, is moving across town to a location that provides more space for staff and volunteers to serve a growing list of clients.

The agency, which more than 400 people each week, is currently located at the corner of Mills Road and Michigan Avenue on the western edge of downtown Saline, is moving to a 7,800 square-foot home at 1259 Industrial Drive, in the Wood Duck park behind the new orthodontics office built by Katherine Kelly.

A look at the warehouse in what will soon be the new home of Saline Area Social Service.

The growing organization needs more space and it needs more convenient space. The agency's board of directors unanimously approved the purchase the new facility, which includes office and warehouse space. It was listed for $795,000. Saline Area Social Service has already begun the campaign to raise $850,000 in support of the purchase, renovations and move.

Roger Raham is president of the board.

“The board of directors sees this as an essential move to serve our neighbors in need for years to come. We have been careful to understand the community’s needs and how we can be responsive, while also being cost-effective and good stewards of our donors’ amazing generosity,” Raham said.

Anne Cummings, Executive Director for Saline Area Social Service, said she and the staff are excited about their new home. Serving a steadily increasing number of clients during the pandemic has not been easy.

"I feel like a huge weight just came off my shoulders that I can breathe," Cummings said Wednesday in her office. "We are focused on wanting to do what we do as best we can. Right now, it's hard because we're restricted by the space we have. The new space will allow us to be really, really good at what we do."

The board has already committed $100,000 in donations. Community organizations, like the Mullick Foundation and Towsley Foundation, each donated $50,000. (Donate or Learn more by clicking here.). So far, about 30 percent of the goal has been met. The agency intends to sell its current building at 234 W. Michigan Ave., to rebuild its reserve funds. St. Joseph Mercy Health System sold the building to Saline Area Social Service for $1 and has the right to repurchase the building.

Saline Area Social Service ribbon cutting in 2016

In 2016, under the leadership of then-executive director Jamail Aikens, Saline Area Social Service moved into its new home at 224 W. Michigan Ave. The agency had a proud local history, dating back to 1961 when Marian Hering stored donated food in her basement to provide Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets to those in need in the Saline community. For years, SASS operated out of a small office tucked away in the back of Merchant Square in Downtown Saline. In 2014, when United Way changed the way it funded local food banks, the agency lost half its funding and some feared it might close. Instead, with its new home on Michigan Avenue and the support of the community, Saline Area Social Service became even stronger.

In 2014, the SASS annual budget was $92,000 - half from the United Way. By 2016, when SASS moved into its new home, the budget was $265,000 - all from community support.

Today, that budget has increased to $504,000. In addition, the agency receives another $357,000 in in-kind donations.

The overall client list has grown gradually but steadily from 350 in 2016 to about 450 today. With a more sophisticated fundraising model, the level of service grew too.  The number of employees has grown from two part-timers to four full-timers and three part-timers. The number of people who volunteer has increased from 2000 a year in 2014, to 6000 in 2016 to 8,200 today. 

So there are more people executing the mission of the agency in a multi-level building,

The typical client is receiving more help than ever. 

In 2014, the average client received five meals a week. That had grown to 7-8 clients a week in 2016. Today, the average client receives 15 meals a week. Saline Area Social Service has also started home deliveries, spending 30-40 hours a week on the service.

"With more space and more community support, we were able to do bigger things," Cummings said.

And bigger things require even more space.

All those goods are stored in the current home's basement, first floor, second floor and garage. In addition, SASS stores some goods at First Assembly of God church.

On a busy weekday, it's tough to traverse the stairs and cramped hallways while carrying goods at Saline Area Social Service.

Another complication is the COVID-19 pandemic. To this day, clients do not enter the building at SASS. They call ahead for their order. Staff and volunteers fill the order and then place it on the back porch for pickup.

A new, spacious building will allow clients to safely enter the warehouse and shop for the goods they want.

The building will also include a reception area and offices. Cummings said that will give staff better ability to meet with clients and meet their needs.

"This room is probably the most space we have to meet right now," Cummings said, seated in a chair in her office that includes two desks, a table and shelves stacked with goods all the way to the ceiling.

Cummings estimates that 80 percent of what SASS provides is the food pantry. But there are other needs. It provides scholarships for families that need help paying for a student's after-school activities, like music or sports. It helps individuals who face eviction or power shut-offs. It arranges and even pays for mental health services for some students in need. These are often not the kinds of things that can be arranged while having conversations in the parking lot, or by phone.

"People sometimes have a difficult time reaching out to us in the first place. We need space to talk in a private environment that allows us to understand what they need," Cummings said.

The move is expected in mid-summer, and you can bet Saline Area Social Service will reach out for the community's assistance.

"The generous Saline community always answers the call," Cummings said.

Among the new items in the new building will be a cooler donated by restaurateur Oscar Cotero. SASS has had it for years but had no place to put it.

"That's going to really increase the amount of fresh food that we're going to be able to provide to our clients which is fantastic," Cummings said.

For more information about the Saline Area Social Service move, click here. To stay up to day on SASS needs, follow the agency's Facebook page.

A look at the office in what will soon be home to the Saline Area Social Service.
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