Tough times compound the challenges facing agencies that help those in need. But even in a dire economy, donors help create success stories.

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They’re hungry. They’re struggling. They wonder where the dollars will come from next year — even next month.

More and more, those challenges are faced not just by tens of thousands of men, women and children in our community but by agencies dedicated to helping them.

“Every day, we’re seeing the impact of poverty and the difficult economic conditions on families,” said Patrick D’Amelio, chief executive officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound. “The need far outstrips our capacity.”

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At another nonprofit, Treehouse for Kids, board members have decided to tap precious reserves to make up for recent cuts in government funding. “We’re operating in a deficit,” said Executive Director Janis Avery. “That’s not sustainable.”

The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy, which today begins its 33rd annual campaign, acknowledges not just the challenges social-service agencies face but the moments of success they help create.

It could be a bag of groceries for a family having trouble putting food on the table. A ride to the doctor for a stranded senior. A safe place to stay for an abused child. An hour with an adult mentor for a teen struggling to find the right track.

Donors to The Times fund have stepped up to help in tough times. Last year’s 10-week drive collected a record $926,069, a 16 percent increase from the previous year.

Since its creation, the fund has raised more than $14.2 million. Every dollar goes to 13 agencies benefiting a wide array of people facing difficult times in King and Snohomish counties.

Government help plummets

“The fund is a powerful source of support for us, and it’s never been more important,” said Avery, whose organization provides an array of services to help foster children, many of whom have experienced abuse and neglect.

“Government funding at all levels — federal, state, county and city — is plummeting,” said Avery. This year, 90 percent of Treehouse’s $7 million annual budget came from private donations, up from 80 percent four years ago.

Social-service agencies see unmet need on a daily basis: At Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound, about 1,800 youngsters are paired with volunteer adult mentors, while 800 more children are on the waiting list.

Beyond the number of people hurting is the “heightened urgency” of their predicament, D’Amelio said.

Families, facing eviction or foreclosure, are having to move more often. Many have trouble affording basic utilities and may lose phone service, making it more difficult for a mentor, tutor or agency to stay in touch.

At Senior Services, another nonprofit helped by the Fund For The Needy, Executive Director Denise Klein said: “Many of our clients live alone and can barely afford the bills, even in homes that are fully paid for.”

Seniors, with their savings strained and expenses climbing, are working longer — if they can hold onto jobs. One 83-year-old woman who called for help said she’d just been laid off and didn’t know how she’d pay her bills.

The U.S. Census Bureau recently estimated that 13.4 percent of Washington’s population was below the poverty level last year, up from 11.4 percent three years earlier.

The rate was higher among children: 18.2 percent of Washington’s youngsters — more than one in six — lived in households below the poverty line, calculated as $22,314 for a family of four.

Those drawn to social-service work see firsthand the effects of poverty and need. They can’t help but feel concern, yet can’t afford to feel discouraged.

“The challenge is to balance practical reality with continual optimism,” Avery said, “and to always be asking … ‘Are we doing the best thing with our dollars? Are we leveraging our resources for greatest community impact?’ “

Full-ride scholarship earned

That impact shows in the lives of those such as Daquawya Finley, 21, on a full-ride scholarship at Seattle University.

“Without Treehouse, I honestly don’t think I could have been where I am today,” said Finley, who was removed from her home by Child Protective Services at age 7 after her mother was unable to care for her.

After a short time in a foster home, she was placed with a great-aunt, Johnnie Jones of South Park, who later adopted her.

Jones has hosted more than a dozen foster children helped by Treehouse, with everything from the basics, such as clothing and school supplies, to tutoring and mentoring and a variety of extras, such as camps, tours and fees to play sports.

A Treehouse mentor advised Finley that to boost her chances of getting a college scholarship, she should concentrate not just on getting good grades in high school but also on taking part in activities that would show leadership, a range of interests and the ability to set goals and work as part of a team.

She joined student government at Chief Sealth High School, became a cheerleader and took photos for the school yearbook.

“I even turned out for track,” she said. “I was terrible, but it was an experience.”

Volunteers invaluable

Like most effective nonprofits, Treehouse maximizes the use of volunteers. It has more than 2,100, compared with 74 employees.

Every Monday afternoon, John Hampton, 71, a retired nurse, greets visitors and answers phones at the reception desk, and prepares materials for mailings.

Hampton, of Tukwila, hadn’t heard of Treehouse until last year, when he saw it listed on an online database of local agencies that needed volunteers.

Besides his shift at the desk, Hampton is working with a Treehouse staffer on a program to better connect with newly referred families.

His reward? Sharing the enthusiasm he sees at Treehouse “from the director to the newest hire, from the volunteers to the large community of contributors and supporters.”

Volunteers are invaluable at Senior Services. Last year, its 2,805 volunteers logged a combined 252,866 hours of service, about the equivalent of $5.4 million in paid time.

Most of those volunteers are seniors themselves, but few go back further than Al Hillstrom, 81, of West Seattle, who has been driving clients to medical appointments since 1989.

“I get more out of it than they do,” said Hillstrom, who enjoys the people he meets and the stories they tell. And waiting while the clients see their doctors has made him one of the city’s most prolific magazine readers.

Hillstrom was a computer programmer at Boeing for 20 years before starting a second career buying and fixing up old houses.

He recently gave Patricia Williams, 89, a lift from her West Seattle retirement home to a First Hill doctor’s visit.

Williams has been relying on others more in the past couple of years, since the death of her husband, Claude. She’s less steady on her feet and has been using a cane since a fall last year.

“I try to limit my doctor visits, but that’s getting harder now that I’m kind of falling apart,” she said.

With each ride, Williams makes a donation, optional for Senior Services clients.

“It’s a great service,” she said. “And I would like to help them keep it going.”

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or

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