Covering south county’s ‘gap area’

LYNNWOOD — A handful of Trinity Lutheran Church volunteers decided to give out sack lunches about five years ago.

Word got out and, as more people started coming for help, more volunteers stepped up to meet the need.

They have since built a powerful tool to advocate for the poor and downtrodden in south Snohomish County: the Neighbors in Need program.

“When you walk in the door, you see people having coffee together who look like a group of friends who are a little rough around the edges and don’t always speak the same language, but that’s OK,” said Julia Eckberg, who coordinates the program.

She called south county a “gap area,” because those who’ve fallen on hard times often have to travel to north King County or the Everett area to find services.

The annual Point in Time homeless count earlier this year showed an estimated 2,382 homeless people in Snohomish County; 829 of them were children. That’s more than last year.

“We wish we could do so much more to help people not be homeless,” Eckberg said.

The volunteers are doing plenty already.

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Eckberg smiled as she walked around during a free breakfast on June 23, wishing a good morning to people sipping coffee.

One of the rotating volunteer teams, a group from Edmonds Unitarian Universalist Church, provided the food that morning. Just a few steps away from the breakfast crowd, retired nurse Gloria Hoppler, of Edmonds, was telling people about health care resources and checking blood pressure.

“It’s not much, but it’s something we can do to help people,” she said. “I like it, and I want to do it as long as I can.”

The list of offered services goes on: A local vet comes by once a month to work with veterans. Volunteers from the Edmonds Food Bank help supply people with groceries. A husband-and-wife team offer free showers in a specially equipped trailer. Others provide a trained, compassionate ear to folks who just need someone to listen.

Volunteers bring food, clothes and skills. They held a fundraiser the weekend of June 22, where groups got on the church’s roof to raise awareness of poverty. They were aiming to raise $5,000 for the program.

Rita Shive, 33, of Lynnwood, came to the Saturday breakfast for the first time on June 23. She got a bag of groceries, looked through the box of toiletries and picked out some clothes — all provided by the various groups supporting Neighbors in Need.

“I think God has magical little ways to help people find what they need, and this place is one of them,” she said.

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While the adults pick up food and clothes, kids can go upstairs to practice math and reading.

About 30 children, most of them elementary-school age, work on their homework with volunteer tutors.

“It started as a coloring table,” said church member Theresa Greco, who set up the project with her son’s Cub Scout pack almost four years ago.

The Lake Forest Park mother of four realized the need when she saw how many of the children were homeless and behind their grade level in school.

“I just can’t stand the fact that a child who wants to learn doesn’t have the opportunity because of the family’s economic situation,” Greco said. “My personal goal is that they graduate, because I don’t want to see them in that line downstairs.”

The classroom is equipped with a few computers, and instructors work with nearby schools to find out what each child needs. A United Way of Snohomish County grant recently allowed the program to hire a Spanish-English bilingual tutor and to buy a formal curriculum.

To engage the kids in the learning process, volunteer Dusty Brannan started a chess club.

The Edmonds Community College teacher got involved with the program about four months ago, when he was looking for ways his students could get involved in the community. He decided to lend a hand himself.

“This is really inspiring, and I’m thankful to be a part of it,” he said.

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Neighbors in Need volunteers also helped start the emergency cold weather shelter for south county. Trinity is one of the churches in a network of local congregations that step up during cold days to provide hot meals and a place to stay.

Trinity housed the shelter until recent changes to the state fire code made that impossible. The church building doesn’t have a sprinkler system required the new code to set up a shelter.

The homeless now spend the coldest nights at City Hall, Eckberg said. Volunteers cook a hot dinner and breakfast at the Lynnwood Senior Center across the street.

The arrangement works for now, but volunteers dream about a building that could house the shelter permanently, said Merrie Emmons of Edmonds Unitarian Universalist Church. A building with a kitchen, showers, lockers and whatever else is needed to keep people safe and comfortable.

“This is our mission,” she said.

Katya Yefimova: 425-339-3452; kyefimova@heraldnet.com

How you can help

To learn more or to get involved, go to http://trinitylutheranchurch.com or contact Julia Eckberg at julia@trinitylutheranchurch.com. The church is at 6215 196th St. SW, Lynnwood. Donations of men’s boots, jackets, hats and gloves are always needed.

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