Lives changed: ‘We all have something to give’
The Seattle Times has begun its 35th annual Fund For The Needy campaign. The agencies we selected focus on lifting people out of distress and giving them a chance to help others.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Give a man a fish, the saying goes, and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you’ll feed him for a lifetime.
But what if you could go a step further, teaching him not just how to fish but how to find the strength and confidence to teach others? Maybe then you’d feed his entire village.
Today, as The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy begins its 35th annual campaign, it celebrates the work of those who see people’s possibilities, not just their problems, and who view every client as a potential asset.
“Everyone has a gift, but sometimes they need help finding it. That’s where we come in,” said Edith Elion, executive director of Atlantic Street Center, one of 12 area nonprofits benefiting from the fund.
Sometimes, the most effective way of helping people can be putting them in a position to help others, agency leaders say.
Seattle Times readers, by their generosity, have shown they endorse that approach. Since the Fund For The Needy was created in 1979, it has raised more than $16.5 million for agencies that help children, families and senior citizens.
Those donations help set new directions in the lives of tens of thousands of people each year — people such as:
• Kerri McGillicuddy, 48, who in 2008, suffering effects of prolonged abuse and trauma, was living in her car, unable to face life’s simplest demands until she was connected with Wellspring Family Services, where she now is a regular donor;
• Tony Kagochi, 39, who hit rock bottom in 2007, drinking as much as a half-gallon of vodka a day before he got into a Salvation Army rehabilitation program, where he still drops by often to encourage others, and
• Aimee Ubinas, 35, who came to Atlantic Street Center last year broke and worried with two young kids, and who now teaches preschool and parenting-skills classes.
In the tough times of the last few years, donors to the Times fund have stepped up their efforts. Last year’s 11-week campaign raised $1,079,307 — 10 times the amount raised in the fund’s inaugural season.
What does it take to change a life? A breakfast burrito? A china cup?
A thrift-store shirt and tie?
The stories of McGillicuddy, Kagochi and Ubinas show that long journeys are made in single steps.
Gaining sense of worth
Kerri McGillicuddy still chokes up when she recalls her first visit to Wellspring Family Services in 2008.
Homeless, unemployed and struggling with the effects of physical and emotional abuse, she didn’t know what to expect when her DSHS caseworker told her Wellspring might be able to help her and her sons, then 15 and 13.
At Wellspring, a counselor offered her tea, and brought it in a china cup.
“I looked at it and thought, ‘Who am I to be served a cup of china?’ ” McGillicuddy recalls. “ ‘I’m a nobody. I’m worthless.’ ”
She was about to learn otherwise.
“We helped her reconnect with the best part of who she is, but which had been really damaged,” said Ruthann Howell, Wellspring’s CEO and president.
From that first meeting, Wellspring offered McGillicuddy clothing for herself and her sons, plus hotel and grocery-store vouchers. But more important, she said, was the assurance her counselor projected.
“She gave me hope ... She dug down into my spirit and pulled it back out and said, ‘Look, you can do this and I’m going to help you every step of the way.’ ”
Wellspring provides emergency housing and other assistance, including counseling, for homeless families. It also provides child care for homeless children.
Today, McGillicuddy is married, her two sons are working and on their own, and she has a good job packing and shipping metal parts at the Ballard warehouse of Skills Inc.
She’s also a regular donor to Wellspring and was invited last spring to speak at the agency’s annual “Powerful Change” luncheon, which drew more than 900.
“We don’t tend to think of her as a former client, even though we’re really proud of where she is,” said Howell. “She’s a donor and wants to give back.”
More than kettles
Even when his heavy drinking cost Tony Kagochi his job as a school instructional assistant, he didn’t stop. He just plunged deeper into the bottle.
He can’t remember how many nights he drank more than two bottles of vodka, then woke up with terrible shakes.
“I’d go to the gas station to get malt liquor to hold me until the liquor store opened,” said Kagochi, 39.
A blood test showed his liver was failing. He couldn’t eat and had trouble sleeping.
He had lost just about everything, except his mother’s love. She’s a minister with a church in Kenya, but flew to Seattle to nurse her son through detox and help him enter a six-month rehabilitation program at the Salvation Army in 2007.
“The only thing I knew about the Salvation Army,” Kagochi said, “was they had thrift stores and kettles.”
As one part of the program, residents’ own clothes are placed in storage, a signal they are leaving their old lives behind. Instead, they get a tightly controlled allotment from the agency’s thrift store.
Kagochi remembers getting dress shirts and ties for a desk assignment at the center, taking steps toward giving back. After completing the program, he was hired as an accounting assistant at the center, and later as intake coordinator.
Kagochi says he is living a new life. His closest friends are men he met in rehab. In 2010, he married a woman he had known years earlier, and the couple have two young daughters.
The program, Kagochi said, also reconnected him to his relationship with God.
He now works as a case manager for an addiction-treatment agency and is working toward a master’s degree in mental-health counseling.
He still makes regular visits to the Salvation Army rehab center to encourage new arrivals, and he regards those visits as an obligation.
“If a building was on fire and I knew how to get out — but I ran out without telling anyone else — what good is that?”
Finding work, healing
Even though Aimee Ubinas and her two young sons were living in a “roach infested” hotel after fleeing an abusive relationship in early 2012, Ubinas made sure her DSHS caseworker knew this:
“I said I want to work,” she recalls. “I don’t want to collect assistance for the rest of my life, nor do I want to sit at home. That’s not going to help me heal, and it’s not going to help my children see there’s more to life.”
Her background in preschool teaching and a class she took in parenting skills helped her approach Atlantic Street Family Center as a candidate to teach a class on parental discipline.
It was only after she connected with the agency as a job candidate that she saw it offered services that could help her and her sons.
A particularly fun and useful one was a six-week class called “Cooking Matters.”
“They teach you healthy meals and snacks you can prepare with your children, not just for your children,” she said.
Berry smoothies, breakfast burritos and brown-rice dishes were some of the favorites that she and her sons — then 11 and just under 2 — made together. Studies show that kids are more likely to eat healthful foods if they have a hand in preparing them, Ubinas said.
Now, in addition to the class she teaches at Atlantic Street Family Center, she is a preschool teacher at Wellspring Family Services.
“We all have something we need,” she said. “And we all have something to give.”
A growing need
The need for charitable services is growing as government support for them has been cut on nearly every level.
An estimated 66,000 children were living below the poverty level in King County last year, according to the Census Bureau — a 10 percent increase from 2011.
Senior Services, serving those at the other end of the age spectrum, is stretching its resources to the limit. In one of its best-known programs, the agency delivered 367,000 “Meals on Wheels” to homebound King County seniors last year, down from 392,000 in 2011.
In the past five years, that meal-delivery service has seen a 14 percent cut in government support, but a 50 percent increase in gasoline prices, and food prices that haven’t come down, the agency says.
“These are services that truly affect people in our community,” said Senior Services CEO Paula Houston. “The burden is on us to maintain them.”
Jack Broom: email@example.com or 206-464-2222.
Seattle Times news researchers Gene Balk and Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.