Providing a spark of hope

"Linda Potter understands the pang of hunger.About 30 years ago, when she was in her 20s, Potter lost her job just before Christmas. Living in Michigan, far from family, she didn't know where to turn for help. She survived on water and a single meal a day - a fast food hamburger that cost 39 cents, the cheapest she could find.One day, she walked into a church, looking for someone to listen as she spilled out her heart. The church was having a women's luncheon, and the priest invited her to join them. He repeatedly loaded up her plate. She left with a full stomach and hope.It did something spiritually and emotionally, said Potter, who lives in Auburn. You know there is someone who cares about me.Potter ended up moving to Washington and bettering her life. But she said she hasn't forgotten the lesson of giving she received when she was poor. She now helps the poor through St. Columbia's Episcopal Church in Kent.Despite a booming economy, hundreds of Puget Sound residents need help to put food on their tables and gifts in their children's arms this holiday season, say volunteers and officials at charitable organizations. If you're a computer geek, of course it's a booming economy and you see lots of help wanted signs, said Katherine Morgason, the director of community relations at the Federal Way Multi-Service Center. But when you look, a lot are minimum wage jobs with no benefits. When you have people in very high-paying jobs, obviously the rent goes up, she said. The people whose wages are not keeping up with the economy, they're the ones that suffer.The numbers prove this economy isn't a boon to everyone. From July 1, 1999 through June 30, 2000, the center's fiscal year, it helped 2,700 families with food and clothing and with paying their utility and housing bills. On Thanksgiving, the center distributed holiday meals to 830 families, Morgason said.I'm sure we'll have that many or more (for Christmas), she said. But dozens of churches, charitable organizations and companies are embracing the spirit of the season by doing their part to help. And it's making the holidays brighter for poor people and for those who help.Potter, who has wrapped gifts for donations at the church's booth at SeaTac Mall, says she gets those warm, fuzzy feelings when she knows she is ensuring others have enough to eat this holiday. She knows firsthand what a spark of hope can do for someone. Sometimes they get in a bad way, she said. If you help them get out of the circumstances they're in, it gives them a new start.The reasons people fall into bad circumstances vary. Some constitute the working poor - they live in poverty and probably always will, Morgason said. Others are poor because of a major illness in the family, a lost job, a divorce or some other life-altering event. Still others grew up in poverty and don't yet possess the skills to get themselves out.Some people helped by the center live in emergency shelters; others live in apartments but struggle to pay their rent and put food on their table, Morgason said. The holidays mean additional expenses poor people can't afford.Most of our families are on such limited incomes now, anything extraordinary just can't be met, she said. Something extraordinary may be a high heating bill, a high water bill, a Christmas present.Besides distributing food for holiday meals and winter clothing, several charities also adopt out families to businesses or individuals. The businesses and individuals receive the ages and genders of the members of their families and then buy them presents.This year, as they have done for the last few years, several city of Federal Way departments will adopt families, including four immigrant families. Rob VanOrsow, the city's recycling coordinator, is coordinating the city's charitable work this year. The Parks and Recreation Department adopted a 35-year-old woman, her two daughters, ages 7 and 9, and son, age 10, said Kurt Reuter, a recreation manager who's coordinating his department's efforts.Reuter recalls one year when a family couldn't afford a Christmas tree and ornaments. In many cases, he said, these families possess just the bare necessities to survive. City employees delight in giving them a holiday to remember, he said.This is to get in touch with the spirit of the holiday, what's it's really about, he said. People are excited about shopping for people who may not otherwise have a nice Christmas. Deputy city clerk Stephanie Courtney, who works in the city's Management Services Department, counts herself among those excited about the big shopping spree ahead. A self-described holiday shopper, who rises at 5 a.m. the morning after Thanksgiving to hit the malls, Courtney says she likes shopping with a family in mind. It makes it more of a personal level, Courtney said. You're not just buying a generic gift for a generic kid. You're buying something they would like. You're specifically buying for that family.At Weyerhaeuser, employees have adopted 75 seniors, 75 kids and 16 families through the Salvation Army and the Children's Home Society in Seattle. The Federal Way-based company has conducted similar charitable efforts since 1992, said Liz Crossman, Weyerhaeuser's director of corporate contributions.Besides adopting families, the company also helps the poor through efforts like the warm, fuzzy drive that was just competed. Employees filled 50 boxes full of blankets, coats, socks and sleeping bags to help the poor through the winter, Crossman said.What the employees enjoy is it gives them a chance to work together and do something special for others, she said. I asked employees and they said, 'sharing our blessings with others.' Sometimes individuals take the initiative to get help for those who need it. Federal Way resident Charles Vandeputte, 44, knew Sandra Gergen, who works as a housekeeper at the Des Moines assisted living facility he administers, needed some help.Gergen, a 41-year-old Renton resident, moved to Washington in September to escape a marriage in another state. She brought her 2-year-old triplets and 3-year-old daughter with her. She and a woman she shares a three-bedroom house with barely scrape together the monthly rent and have no money for extras, such as toys.Vandeputte attends Unity Church of Christianity of Federal Way with Ann Keefe, who runs the Des Moines-based Hand Up Foundation. He asked her to help Gergen. The result was a Thanksgiving meal and gifts for Gergen's kids and her friend's two daughters. Gergen hopes the Hand Up Foundation helps them again this Christmas.Here I am 41 years old, four little babies. I'm starting all over, she said. I just cried that there was someone willing to help anybody.Vandeputte and Gergen say they like Keefe's philosophy of giving a hand up, not a hand out. Keefe screens potential recipients by asking them what they plan to do to get out of their financial difficulties.Then I know the resources, whatever it is they need, get to the right people, the people who truly need it - the people who are truly trying to better their situation, Vandeputte said.As for Potter, she says she will always remember how quickly someone's situation can deteriorate.It can happen so fast, she said. I've worked with some people who had very high level professional jobs. They've been fired or laid off and found out they were living beyond their means. All of a sudden they had to find out where the food banks are. "

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