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A Hunger To Help Health Problems Slow Ex-Chef, But Neighbors’ Needs Come First

Julia Rahmaan Age: 52 Occupation: Volunteer

Boxes of food - chili, beans and government-issue beef - consume Julia Rahmaan’s hallway and living room. Leaning on a cane, she dodges the boxes without complaint.

There’s always room for food in Rahmaan’s life.

With a pinch of humor, a shot of frugality and heaps of optimism, the former chef seems bent on filling every belly in her West First neighborhood.

The boxes are headed downstairs, to the food bank she started in The Parsons apartments, a downtown Spokane housing project she calls home.

Between deliveries, she cooks up a menu of delicious gumbos, hams and sandwiches for neighbors too broke or too disabled to fix meals. Come by anytime, day or night, she says.

“If everyone did what we could do, we wouldn’t have half the problems we do,” she said.

Rahmaan could herself be relying on others. The 52-year-old woman leans on a cane because of arthritis and decaying bones in her back, and is slowly losing her sight to glaucoma.

Instead, she winds up buying food for others with her $540 monthly budget.

The Lord has given her happiness, she says, and if He wants to take her health, that’s his call.

“I tell people, when I must get into a wheelchair I’m low to the ground,” Rahmaan said. “So you’d better watch out.”

Under her funny, folksy leadership, the Parsons Residents Association has become a neighborhood charity.

The food bank, opened last year with food Rahmaan gleaned from her own and her friends’ cupboards, is so packed that the neighborhood senior center now receives overflow.

Each bag is packed by Rahmaan, who insists the food is all “proteins, nutrients, vitamins. No junk food, no way.”

To encourage donations - food and otherwise - she got the group nonprofit status, enabling the association to give a tax write-off for donations.

Last year, she cajoled her landlord - the Spokane Housing Authority - into turning the building’s candy and pop machines over to the association.

The $200 monthly haul from the machines now funds free dinners and social events. Extra meals are valued in the building, which caters to the poor, elderly and disabled. Most of the 60 residents survive on incomes of less than $8,000 a year.

Using money from the resident fund, she whipped up a plate of salmon-salad sandwiches for a Super Bowl party.

Seafood is her specialty. She keeps a fishing pole in her coat closet, in case she gets a ride to the lake.

“She’s mother hen and sees that everyone is taken care of, whether it be money or food,” said Judy Clark, her friend and fellow Parsons resident.

God may provide, Rahmaan says, but bargains are a blessing that require a keen eye.

A compulsive coupon-clipper, Rahmaan says a good trip to the store results in a $10 savings. Shopping for the party, she bought four big bags of chips for $3.

Among her tips: Shop on Monday mornings, when store managers put weekend leftovers on sale. Or after 11 p.m. any day, when night managers are eager to clean shelves for new merchandise.

“She puts me to shame,” Housing Authority official and bargain shopper Sharon Lord said with a laugh. “She knows where the deals are. She knows where to shop.”

She learned lessons the hard way, raising five kids alone after their father left. All were born before Rahmaan was 21.

She wasn’t quite alone, she says. “It was me and God. I prayed so much, He probably said, ‘Enough, knock it off down there.”’

On and off welfare, she turned a love into a career. She put herself through cooking school, and worked for a decade at a Red Lion hotel in Portland, first as a chef, then as an administrator.

She quit in 1993 when her arthritis flared and, at the suggestion of one of her daughters, moved to Spokane.

Her children are successful and adoring. Ann Garnett says her mother won’t ask for help carrying her groceries from a store blocks away, despite leaning on a cane.

“She’s one of those people who has gone out of her way to help, whether it’s friends or people she doesn’t know,” said Garnett. “She’ll give you her last dime. She’s my idol.”

Rahmaan now passes on lessons in good parenting and thrifty shopping to poor mothers through the Institute for Neighborhood Leadership, a group that instructs poor families to be community leaders.

Even her business interests are gilded with altruism. She’s preparing to become a notary public, in hopes of offering discount services to poor people.

She’s out of time today, though.

“I’ve got to get some shopping done,” said Rahmaan. “Got some sandwiches to make.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo