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Dome - In-house philanthropy

October 2010

In-house philanthropy

Date: October 7, 2010

Suburban Hospital helps employees weather a financial crisis while empowering colleagues.


Dennis Parnell and Brenda Senter are the driving force behind an effort to get employees to help colleagues with financial needs.
Dennis Parnell and Brenda Senter are the driving force behind an effort to get employees to help colleagues with financial needs.

Dennis Parnell’s voice drops as he recalls the day in 2008 when he heard from a manager about a nursing assistant’s personal crisis. Her 30-year-old brother in Ethiopia had stepped on a rusty nail and developed tetanus. He didn’t have money to pay for his care, and neither did she.

At an executive meeting, Parnell, vice president for human resources at Suburban Hospital, took up a collection and presented the employee with a check. Sadly, though the aid was helpful, it wasn’t enough to cover the expenses. The employee’s brother died shortly afterwards. Informally, employees pitched in to cover his burial expenses.

Within weeks, Parnell learned that several employees were about to be evicted from their homes. “For a period of several months, not a week went by without an employee asking for financial assistance,” he says. “That’s when it hit me how bad the economy was getting. I know the hospital isn’t a bank, but I wondered how we could address this growing need.”

Parnell began researching formal emergency assistance programs at other institutions. Together with a committee consisting of managers and staff, including HR training manager Brenda Senter, he put together a program, dubbed ECHO (Employees Contributing to Help Others), which debuted in February 2010.

To get the assistance, an employee submits a request, providing clear documentation of need. A committee of 10 employees confidentially reviews each request within 72 hours.

Once a request is approved, a check is made out to the source providing the service, such as a landlord or health insurance company. An approved employee is eligible to receive $1,000 in a 12-month period and is also referred to the employee assistance program, which provides financial counseling.

But where does the money come from? The executive committee jumpstarted funding for the program with $7,000, followed by a donation of $20,000 from the hospital’s Auxiliary. Proceeds from other events also provide a boost. So far, roughly 80 people donate regularly.

To keep up with the growing need, Senter has been setting up shop near the cafeteria, educating staff about ECHO. Drawing from her role as a diversity trainer, she’s also compiling a multiethnic cookbook, which she plans to sell to benefit ECHO.

Senter realizes that these are tough economic times for everyone. “But if each of Suburban’s 1,800 employees would donate $1 per pay period toward ECHO, the fund would have $3,600 a month.”

Requests for ECHO aid come from a range of positions, from frontline staff to managers. “You’d be surprised that there are gut-wrenching stories at all levels,” says Parnell. Since its inception last February, the program has helped 14 people.

Richard Garcia, an HR specialist and first point of contact for ECHO applicants, is among the donors. “Most people will have an unexpected expense,” he says. “It could happen to me. It’s nice to know that there’s a safety net, and I’m happy to contribute.”

Even donating a little bit can have an impact on someone’s life, says Garcia. And, he adds, whereas in a large organization you may not know where the money goes, “this fund directly affects you because the person in need works alongside you. Knowing that the people you work with care makes us all better at what we do.”

—Judy F. Minkove

Info: 301-896-3023 or echo@suburbanhospital.org 

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