The enveloping warmth of summer seemed like a mirage to Vicki Townsend back in January.
It was around that time that Townsend and other members of the Spokane Stake Relief Society began mulling over ideas for a service project that would coincide with the annual Women’s Conference held in March. The Shiloh Hills Ward – where Townsend serves as Relief Society president – was asked to take the lead on the project.
In the middle of one of the coldest winters on record in the Inland Northwest, Townsend caught a local news report about a shoe drive for kids at Our Place Community Ministries, a Christian-based nonprofit agency in Spokane’s West Central neighborhood.
“I thought perhaps we could tag on to that project,” Townsend said. “Sadly, when I called Our Place the next day, the drive was completed. They did tell me, though, that they were launching their annual blanket drive.”
Townsend set up a tour of Our Place with Executive Director Tracie Swanson. She learned how the nonprofit relied heavily on the generosity of Spokane-area residents to serve thousands of less fortunate families and individuals. Between the support of faith groups, foundation grants and donations from individuals, the grassroots organization has become a hub of vital assistance since originating in 1987. Last year, Our Place served 17,161 individuals in need.
Along with a food bank and clothing bank, Our Place provides bus passes, a free laundry room and utility assistance. A total of 10 area churches serve as the foundation for the nonprofit with the pastor and one member from each congregation represented on the agency’s board of directors. The mission statement of Our Place describes how it “respectfully welcomes and supports our neighbors in improving their quality of life.”
Townsend walked away from her visit to Our Place with a greater appreciation for the agency as well as the pressing need for the Relief Society to step up and make a difference.
“They spoke about the current need for items that provide warmth,” she said. “They quoted statistics about where once the homeless population were single adults, now they are families relegated to cars and curbs. They suggested I go on their website and read the information about the blanket drive. I took one look at the mother cradling her children with such a look of despair, I knew we needed to help. It was hard for me in my warm bed inside my warm house to even imagine what their lives must be like – lacking even the basics of daily life.”
The drive to collect blankets, sleeping bags, hats, gloves, warm socks and hygiene kits began on Feb. 1 and ran through March 8. Earlier in the winter, a homeless man had dropped by Our Place looking for men’s gloves. None could be found on the shelves. A week later, Swanson learned the man’s fingers had to be amputated due to frostbite.
“We saw 1,342 homeless people in 2013, more than any other year,” Swanson said. “When I started here five years ago that number was around 500, so it’s almost tripled.”
Meanwhile, both state and federal funding for the disadvantaged has dwindled in that same five-year span. Along with poverty linked to health challenges and corresponding costs, mental illness and unemployment, the nationwide recession created an influx of working-class poor relying on social service agencies like Our Place for the first time.
“These people we help are genuinely grateful and humbled,” Swanson said. “We’re not here to judge. We’re here to provide emergency assistance. Our top priorities are treating people with respect and dignity.”
In promoting their service project, the Relief Society referred to a scripture from Matthew, chapter 25, in which the Savior describes how helping the needy is akin to serving Him.
“For I was a hungered and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger and ye took me in; naked and ye clothed me.”
Spokane Stake Relief Society President Marilyn Jones said the emphasis on service aligns with the organization’s ongoing mission of living and serving as Christ would.
“There is one universal truth about serving others, especially those in need – it is necessary for each of us to give back, to do something for someone else,” Jones said. “It makes us more thankful for what we have and builds understanding of those in need. Most organizations that help the people in need in our community are in need of a helping hand to meet the needs of those in our community. The Relief Society motto – ‘Charity Never Faileth’ – should be written in our hearts as we act as disciples of Jesus Christ.”
In recent years, the Spokane Stake Relief Society has conducted a variety of service projects, including collecting clothing and other items for a foster care program; gathering blankets, hygiene kits, towels and sheets for the Hope House women’s shelter and creating homemade afghans for Hope House.
“People are looking for ways to help in the community and aren’t really sure where the needs are,” Jones said. “These kinds of activities help people understand not only the needs, but to find the groups whom they can help – and the help doesn’t stop after our activity. Hope House has been the recipient of individual donations by our sisters of towels, blankets and sheets. And the goodies you receive while traveling at the hotels and motels are wonderful items to continue to drop off.”
The Spokane Stake Young Women also contributed to the Our Place project by collecting and organizing items for hygiene kits. Over 400 kits were eventually compiled for Our Place. The Glenrose Ward, led by Madisen Christensen, assembled over 150 kits on its own. Christensen was able to have most of the items donated by contacting local dentists and pharmacies as well as involving peers from school.
Over the weeks, supplies poured in from each ward. A loom was utilized to make hand-spun stocking hats. On March 8, the day of the Relief Society Conference, all the donations were brought to the Spokane Stake Center on 29th Avenue.
“We put up a couple of long tables at the back of the room to put the donations on and had to keep adding tables and finally began to pile items on the floor,” Jones recalls. “After classes and while moving into the cultural hall for our lunch, the amount of items greeted us.”
Swanson was at the lunch to speak about Our Place and thank the Relief Society for their efforts.
“When Tracie walked in and saw the amount, she started to tear up,” Jones said. “We were all happy to hear that they did not have enough room to store it all and we would have to place some in an outside storage area. The 10 units that make up Spokane Washington Stake are all wonderful about sharing, willing to help and so great about participating in the various service projects so that we can help bless the lives of those in our community.”
Swanson said the donation represented the most substantial in-kind gift Our Place has ever received.
“We rely on service projects like this,” she said. “The LDS project was amazing. There were a lot of items directed toward the homeless. That drive came along the time that we had a real cold snap.”
Swanson said the Golden Rule – striving to treat others as you would be treated – continues to be a guiding principle at Our Place. She recalls a time when she received help through the WIC (Women, Infant and Children nutrition) program and dealt with less-than-compassionate treatment at some grocery stores.
“The Golden Rule does apply,” she said. “I don’t want our clients ever feeling disrespected. This is about a restoration of dignity. When someone leaves here with a basket of food and I see them opening the bread and eating it as soon as they get outside, I’m glad we have the resources to help. They’ve been fed.”
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