When Jonathan Meredith became a volunteer for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, he only thought about the good he would be doing in the community -- not the financial cost to him.
     Meredith, 23, of Richmond spends time once a week with 11-year-old Ahmad Salaam. Meredith said he spends about $50 to $60 a month on gas to pick up Ahmad and drive him to the activities they do.
     Like many volunteers at Richmond-area nonprofit organizations, Meredith is feeling the sting of rising gas prices.
     "It's just forced us to find some activities that are close to his house that are enjoyable," Meredith said.
     The time Meredith and Ahmad spend fishing and playing football and laser tag is important for Ahmad's development, said his mother, Sarone Salaam.
     "I feel it's worth it," Meredith said. "The monetary impact has been outweighed by the impact I've had on Ahmad's life so far."
     While Meredith pays for his own gas, volunteers with the Red Cross Medical Transportation Program use the organization's cars.
     The Greater Richmond Chapter of the American Red Cross has 15 vehicles used to drive people in need to doctor appointments.
     From July 2006 to June 2007, the organization spent $30,000 for gasoline, logging 240,000 miles. During the next year, driving the same number of miles, the group paid $10,000 more for gas, chapter spokeswoman Theresa House said.
     "If we can't control gas prices, then we can control other things, like how we use our gas," she said.
     Another organization taking an innovative approach to the gas crunch is Comfort Zone Camp, which conducts mostly weekend camps to help children and teens cope with the loss of loved ones. The group provides free transportation to the Hanover County camp for children from throughout the U.S.
     Lynne Hughes, the group's chief executive officer, said that this year, Comfort Zone Camp will for the first time offer a camp in California for children and teens from Western states. In previous years, the majority of the camps were held at Camp Hanover, and several were held in New Jersey to address the impact of Sept. 11.
     All campers are reimbursed for the miles either flown or driven. A parent or guardian also is encouraged to attend and will stay in a hotel for the weekend courtesy of the organization.
     "It's one of our core values to not charge, and [to] provide everything at no cost to the families," Hughes said. "We are just beginning to feel the pinch. . . . The last thing we want to do is cut any services."
     The camps run from January to October. In 2008, the camp plans to spend $102,000 in travel expenses for about 800 campers and guardians. In 2007, the organization spent $72,000 on gas, airline, train and hotel costs for 600 families.
     "For us, failure is not an option," Hughes said. "We're going to have to find new ways to fundraise or offset those increased costs."
     Cutting services also is not an option for the Powhatan Volunteer Fire Department. Phil Warner, assistant county fire chief, said the department responds to about 150 calls each month.
     "Our calls are gradually increasing every year." Warner said."[The cost] is just going to keep going up."
     The department spent 61 percent more on diesel-fuel costs for its fire trucks in the 12 months that ended in June compared with the same period the year before. In the next 12 months, it expects fuel costs to jump 20 percent.
     The department plans to propose an incentive program as a way to keep volunteers responding to calls.
     "It looks like fuel prices are going to be terrible, and it may affect services, so we will have to do something creative to keep volunteers coming," he said.
     This is the second year Meals on Wheels of Central Virginia will help volunteers cope with higher gas prices. Genworth Financial Inc. donated $5,000 last year and $5,000 this year to help pay for gas cards for volunteers.
     Richard S. Schultz, executive vice president of Feed More Inc., the new umbrella organization overseeing Meals on Wheels and Central Virginia Foodbank, said Genworth's second donation will help offset the $60,000 that volunteers anticipate spending this year. Last year, volunteers shelled out about $40,000 for gas.
     Schultz has a goal of raising at least $20,000 in donations from businesses for the gas card program.
     "We thought $5,000 would carry us," he said. "But when gas prices spiked, we decided we needed more help."
     Meals on Wheels uses donations -- not money from its budget -- to help volunteers with gas, Schultz said.
     "What we are trying to do is tap into a new source of funding while not taking away from the feeding program," he said.
     Meals on Wheels has several distribution centers outside the city, which helps cut down on driving.
     Danny Patterson, 53, a retired law-enforcement officer, drives 40 miles round trip once a month to deliver meals in New Kent County where he lives.
     If the distribution center wasn't in New Kent, he would have to drive to Richmond to pick up the meals. Although he isn't getting help to pay for gas, he enjoys doing the work.
     "It's more than just delivering meals," he said. "It's having personal contact with people that don't get the opportunity to see somebody during the day, too."
     Contact Lindsay Machak at (804) 649-6243 or lmachak@timesdispatch.com.

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