As hard times drag on, small gifts make a difference

Pam Sorenson gives her heart and her time to Christmas House. She knows the faces of need. She has seen those faces change.

The Everett nonprofit agency provides toys for children whose families might otherwise not be able to buy gifts. When Sorenson joined Christmas House as a volunteer more than 20 years ago, she said, parents coming for help were nearly all single mothers on public assistance.

“Now we have a lot of people who are out there working for $9 or $10 an hour, and trying to support two kids — the working poor,” the Everett woman said.

At Volunteers of America Western Washington, Leann Geiger is director of food bank services. The VOA is the lead agency for the Snohomish County Food Bank Coalition, which includes 20 food banks. Geiger, too, said food banks are serving people who in the past did not need help.

“We are seeing a lot of first-time users,” Geiger said. “Their unemployment has run out — we’re seeing that a lot. It is hard for a lot of people. They kind of have to put their pride aside. We try to make it as comfortable for them as possible.”

Winnie Coral is program manager at the South Everett Neighborhood Center and Familias Unidas Latino Resource Center. The neighborhood center is one of several in Snohomish County operated by Lutheran Community Services Northwest. Coral also sees today’s hard economic realities bringing hardships to more and more families.

“It really is everyone now,” Coral said. “In a lot of cases, parents have welcomed children and their children’s children back into the home. My impression is that a lot of people are reaching the end of their resources.

“They’ve been hanging on, working, going through savings and pulling out favors. It’s getting pretty tight and pretty difficult,” Coral said.

At the neighborhood center, which provides classes, support groups, translation, resume-writing and other help, Coral has encountered families caught up in the mortgage crisis through no fault of their own. “We get renters in the crunch. The landlord they were paying has defaulted,” she said.

“Every once in awhile there’s a bright spot,” Coral said. “Someone finally gets a job — but it’s not typically at the same rate they were being paid before. It’s good news, but not as good as you would hope.”

That’s the economic picture as people in Snohomish County prepare to celebrate the 2011 holiday season. Adding to the gloomy picture is a stunning statistic: Nearly 70,000 people in the county — close to the population of Edmonds and Lynnwood combined — were living at or below federal poverty levels in 2010, according to a Snohomish County Human Services Department report.

“A lot of people are struggling to survive and hanging in there. They don’t have enough to take care of their kids at Christmas,” said Bill Brackin, vice president of administration, technology, buildings and maintenance for Volunteers of America Western Washington.

Brackin was formerly program director for VOA’s North Sound 211 community information line. Through that work, he’s been able to quantify needs by keeping records of calls the line gets.

Between July 1 and Sept. 30, North Sound 211 was contacted by 10,602 people. Many callers sought help with housing — 1,315 needed assistance with rent, mortgage payments or moving; 926 sought emergency shelter; and 569 asked about low-cost housing.

Calls to 211 for help with utilities totaled 1,543 from July through September. And 356 callers needed information about food banks and meal programs.

“You would expect some things to be more in demand,” Brackin said. “I don’t know if that’s because people have given up or they know all their options. Energy assistance and low-cost housing are still really up.”

Brackin senses that the people affected two years ago are still struggling financially, but now know all too well about food banks and other available help. “They’ve talked to us so many times,” he said.

“I will tell you that ever since the recession began, the need for Thanksgiving and Christmas food has gone through the roof,” Brackin said.

At the VOA food bank, there has been a spike in need over the past year, but she said those numbers have leveled off, Geiger said.

“We’re still seeing greater need than before the recession started,” Geiger said.

In September, she said, the Volunteers of America Food Bank in Everett served 2,252 households — 4,985 individuals. Need is self-declared, Geiger said, but food bank visitors need proof of identification for each member of the household and proof of an Everett-area address.

The food bank, like other social service agencies, faces cuts in federal and state funds, Geiger said. For this year, Federal Emergency Management Agency gave them a $114,000 grant — which is 27 percent less than last year. They don’t know how much they’ll be given next year. The food bank also anticipates $296,000 next year from a state Emergency Assistance Program, but Geiger said that sum may be cut.

“With the decrease in federal and state funds, we’re relying even more on donations,” she said.

The food bank runs a Thanksgiving and Christmas basket program which matches sponsors with families. “Last year, we served about 1,500 families, all in Snohomish County,” Geiger said. “Some of our long-term donors — individuals, groups and churches — are having to cut back on the number they can do. We’re trying to find new and creative ways to get more.”

Geiger said that while schools and businesses are holding as many food drives as in the past, the amount of food donated has dropped since the beginning of the economic downturn. “People are still trying, but are not able to bring in as much,” she said. “When you don’t know what your future holds, it’s hard to give up any extra that you may have.”

Yet at United Way of Snohomish County, Neil Parekh, vice president of marketing and communications, said that both individuals and businesses have stepped up charitable giving in the past year. Comparing United Way donations from April 1 to Nov. 1 in both 2010 and 2011, Parekh said, “those numbers are up a total of 17 percent — 14 percent up on the corporate side and 18 percent up on employee contributions,” he said.

“With the community in such a situation, I’m excited people are really stepping up,” Parekh said. The fundraising campaign for United Way of Snohomish County raised $9.9 million in 2010, up from $9.8 million in 2009.

He said that United Way, in determining how those donations will be directed, has looked to the 2010 Snohomish County Low Income Needs Assessment, a report compiled by the county’s Human Services Department.

The report was based on a survey of people representing 1,484 low-income households, about 2,783 individuals. According to that report, nearly 10 percent of Snohomish County’s 713,335 people were living in poverty last year.

Unemployment figures released by the state’s Employment Security Department on Oct. 25 showed that the county’s jobless rate for September was 9 percent.

“The economy is hurting everyone,” Parekh said. “You see it in your neighborhood and in your own families.”

At Christmas House, Sorenson sees it in faces. The Christmas House toy “shop” at the Everett Boys &Girls Club will be open Dec. 2 to Dec. 20. Parents who meet low-income qualifications will be given toys for each child in their families.

The agency has its own needs. After Dec. 20, Christmas House, which has used a storage space in Marysville, will need a new site to keep toys it purchases at bargain prices after the holidays. Sorenson hopes to find a rent-free space that is clean, dry and 1,000 square feet or larger.

As always, Christmas House needs toys. “We try to buy about 80 percent of the toys we need,” Sorenson said. The number needed “is all guesswork,” she said. “We don’t know if a family has one or two kids, or three or four.

“Our stuff comes from here, there and everywhere,” Sorenson said. A motorcycle group — “they have hearts of gold” — were big donors last year. “A grandma donates one doll. Another person donates $100,” she said.

“It’s really the small gifts that do make the difference,” said Geiger, of the VOA food bank. “There aren’t that many large gifts that we get. It’s the small gifts that add up.”

Coral, of the South Everett Neighborhood Center, said proximity to need seems to boost generosity.

“I think because so many of us are seeing the wolf at our neighbors’ doors — if not our own — people are looking for at least small ways we can help,” she said. “And that’s excellent.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460,

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