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Helping hand

Sat., May 29, 2010

Valley groups reach out to needy

When Jan and Clint O’Grady were married 18 months ago, they blended two families with three children each into one.

“Instead of the Brady Bunch, we’re the O’Grady Bunch,” Jan O’Grady joked.

The family lived in a three-bedroom home they had been renting, but the owner of the home went into foreclosure and the family had to find a new place to live. Jan O’Grady takes medical billing classes online, and while she does that, Clint takes care of the family.

With no other options, the two parents, their six children and three dogs moved into a 32-foot long RV last August.

The couple said they didn’t expect to live there long, just long enough to find a permanent home.

Soon, winter was approaching. The RV was cold – the family was running low on propane and it wasn’t insulated well.

Jan O’Grady said that every morning, there were ice chunks in the shower the kids had to break before they stepped inside.

“We’d been out of propane for like four days,” Clint O’Grady said.

That was around the time they met MJ Bolt, the organizer of HEART in Hand, an offshoot of the Central Valley PTA/PTSA Council.

Bolt started HEART in Hand after she had been talking to a friend about a year ago and learned there were around 250 homeless students in the Central Valley School District. In fact, during the 2008-’09 school year 390 children were identified as homeless.

“That figure just kind of stuck with me,” Bolt said.

She knew that her church had always participated in activities to help children in the community, but she didn’t know how to go about doing something about it herself, so she started making a few calls.

She talked to Leslie Camden Goold, the district’s liaison to the Homeless Education and Resource Team program and found out about the needs of the many students that are homeless or in transitional housing in the district. The HEART program works with Spokane Valley Partners, area shelters and housing providers, the Spokane Homeless Coalition and the city and county of Spokane.

Bolt then held a meeting with other members of the PTA at Ponderosa Elementary and told them what she had learned.

“People had tears in their eyes,” Bolt said.

It was decided to designate a bank fund through the PTA to collect money for those in need.

The PTA already had a 501(c)3, or nonprofit tax status, so anyone donating could write off that donation on their taxes.

Bolt then signed up for a Facebook account and created a blog to get the word out about what they were doing.

When Bolt met the O’Gradys, they had been living in their RV for a few months. She found them the propane they needed for heat and got to know the family.

“MJ really put us in touch with a lot of people,” Clint O’Grady said.

She found them change for laundry, boots for the entire family, socks, coats and food.

“Christmas was by far the best Christmas we’ve had thanks to MJ,” Clint O’Grady said.

One day, Bolt’s father-in-law showed up and installed aluminum skirting and insulation under their RV.

The family was also without a vehicle, which made trips to the food bank difficult – hauling food for eight people home on the bus can be a challenge.

Bolt found someone who wanted to get rid of their minivan and another person who was willing to pay the tax and license fees on the vehicle.

“They just handed us the keys,” Clint said.

His wife added that it can hold the whole family and it runs well.

The O’Grady’s are not the only family benefitting from HEART in Hand. The organization raised funds to pay the deposit for a family of six to get an apartment after they had been renting a hotel room. They have collected blankets and household items and have talked Barker High School into lending them a room to store everything they have collected.

They have helped students buy tickets for their senior all-nighter parties and paid for activity fees.

“It’s been awesome,” Bolt said. “People just stepped up.”

But HEART in Hand isn’t the only local organization stepping up to help.

Jesse Sheldon is a 15-year-old freshman at Central Valley High School. Not long ago, he read a story in Time Magazine about a woman who started a diaper bank in New Haven, Conn. The woman was in a restroom when another woman came in, removed her child’s diaper, washed it off and put the diaper back on the child.

“That was powerful to me,” Sheldon said.

From there, he held the Spokane Diaper Drive last May. He collected 4,000 diapers and delivered them to St. Anne’s Family Center in Spokane.

He felt pretty good about the project and hoped to do more.

Sheldon’s mother, Julie, said her own mother died in 2008 and left her a rental house. It needed some renovation, but since no one was using it, she let Jesse use it for what he now calls Inland NW Baby.

The two have been collecting clothing for children from preemies up through age 12. They wash every item, check the snaps, buttons and zippers for needed repairs and sort the clothing by size.

Jesse has visited area dentists to collect surplus toothpaste and toothbrushes. He said that many low-income families don’t have access to items like that.

The project is just getting up off the ground – he started in February – but he plans to deliver care packages with clothing, toys, diapers and other needed items to already established organizations such as the Head Start/Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program through the school district, HEART in Hand and at Barker High School, the alternative high school in Central Valley.

“I’m really trying to help the Valley,” he said.

He has a goal of delivering at least a diaper a day for the clients of these organizations. Diapers can be expensive, so he is counting on a community diaper drive next week to get him started.

“The community is really responding,” his mother said. She said that Jesse has been working on getting a nonprofit status and because of his age, he is recruiting adults to serve on a board of directors.

For the O’Gradys, things are looking up. The family moved into a three-bedroom apartment two weeks ago and is in the process of unpacking everything they had in storage. Bolt said Jan O’Grady has been helping other mothers she knows are in need to navigate many of the social services available, and had been able to donate a few things to HEART in Hand as well.

“I believe that it’s going to get better,” Jan O’Grady said. “We couldn’t have done it without MJ.”

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