‘Really nervous’: Hospice director says donations have plummeted

Nonprofits are getting hit. Everyone’s getting hit.

Sunshine Haven hospice in Olmito has been providing free, comfortable, end-of-life care to terminally ill patients in a home-like setting since opening its doors in November 2000.

These days the sun isn’t shining quite as brightly as it might, though, since donations the nonprofit relies have plummeted since the pandemic. Much of the hospice’s donations typically are from families whose loved ones spent their last days at the facility at one time or another.

Sunshine Haven Inc. Executive Director Veronica Lucio said she tries to run the hospice with “hospice values” but that at the end of the day the books still have to be balanced and money is tight right now.

“Times are different now post-COVID,” she said. “People do not and cannot give the way they used to. Some of that is because of employment issues and some of that is because of inflation.”

A staff member walks past a model room at Sunshine Haven Inc. Friday, Feb. 10, 2023, in Olmito. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

In the first year of the pandemic, Sunshine Haven’s donation drive-through netted almost $10,000 in cash and even more in in-kind donations, Lucio said. The second year, cash donations fell to $6,000. In 2022, the drive-through brought in a fair amount of in-kind donations but only $400 in cash, she said.

“It was at the height of inflation too,” Lucio said. “Nonprofits are getting hit. Everyone’s getting hit.”

Sunshine Haven is the only special care facility of its kind in Cameron County and one of only 11 in the state, she said. While Cameron County is the main service area, Sunshine Haven does accept placements from Hidalgo County’s two hospices if they have space, Lucio said.

Sunshine Haven partners with hospice agencies, which make referrals on behalf of families of terminally ill patients who can’t afford traditional hospice care. Sunshine Haven follows hospice agency physicians’ directives in providing round-the-clock care for patients.

Another issue that’s causing problems is an unusual decline in the number of patients from Brownsville, which affects the amount of reimbursable Community Development Block Grant funding Sunshine Haven receives through the city of Brownsville, funding that pays for patient care, staff and utilities, she said. Lucio said she started noticing the change around August and September.

Sunshine Haven Inc. pictured Friday, Feb. 10, 2023, in Olmito. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

“For this last October, only 5 percent of our residents were from Brownsville,” she said. “That is an anomaly in itself.”

Lucio wonders if it has anything to do with possible misconceptions on the part of the public about things like visitation policy. During the pandemic Sunshine Haven limited visitors to one or two at a time but never denied visitation outright, since it would have been contrary to federal law, though now that limit has been lifted, she said.

Another misconception, something Lucio said she caught wind of during the pandemic, is that Sunshine Haven is only for patients with only days left to live. In reality, the original mission of the hospice — still the mission today — is to care for longer term patients as well as those who are “imminent,” she said.

“It’s been incredible to be able to serve those kinds of families as well, because then you have time to bond with the patient,” Lucio said. “Sometimes it even involves reconciliation among family members. That way they can pass way in peace and the family can be left behind in peace. It’s hard to do that when you have less than a week.”

Memorial paving stones are laid out around the facility’s flag pole Friday, Feb. 10, 2023, at Sunshine Haven Inc. in Olmito. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

Sunshine Haven is grateful for its partnering agencies, Lucio said, though she admitted she’s “really nervous” because of the drop in funding.

“We have a golf tournament coming up in April, which we had a tremendous outpouring for last year, but that’s not coming for two months, and my reimbursable grants aren’t coming until April … and they’re so minimal compared to previous years,” Lucio said.

Sunshine Haven closed out last year barely in the black, she said. Lucio expressed gratitude to the hospice’s board members for their fundraising efforts, adding that she hopes to educate the public anew on what Sunshine Haven’s mission, plus get out the word that things are tough right now. The hospice has provided free services to around 1,600 families over the past 22 years, and Lucio issued a plea specifically to those families “to not forget about us.”

“We need them to know that $5 or $10 a month would make a huge difference in their gratitude for what Sunshine Haven has been able to provide,” she said. “Other families are going to need us.”

Sunshine Haven Inc. can be found at https://sunshinehaveninc.org/