Jacque Lewis knows all too well what it's like to need help. Now she's giving back, helping one of the charities supported by The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy.

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Jacque Lewis can pack her silver minivan completely full with food bound for the Carnation Hopelink food bank in 15 minutes flat.

She darts around the back room of an Albertsons in Redmond, grabbing boxes of frozen meat, whole cakes still days from their expiration dates and bins full of loaves of bread. Lewis moves in a practiced manner, sorting the food into perfect piles as if she’s done this for years.

But it’s only her second month volunteering at the food bank. Last year, Lewis was living out of that same minivan with her husband and three of her kids.

Hopelink helped Lewis get an apartment for her family, enroll her kids in school and even helped her find a job at Papa Murphy’s, where she has aspirations to become a manager.

ABOUT THIS SERIES

Each year, The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy raises money for a group of charities that help children, families and senior citizens. Throughout the fall and winter, The Times is telling how the 12 organizations make a difference in the lives of thousands, and the impact donors can make.

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From this series:

Hopelink is one of the 12 agencies that benefit from The Seattle Times’ annual Fund For The Needy. The fund, which begins its 38th year today, has raised more than $20 million since it launched in 1979 — including a record $1.4 million last year.

Each year, large and small donations from readers go to organizations in the Puget Sound region that help people in need of everything from food to education.

Fund For The Needy dollars benefit all corners of our community, from children in foster care to teenagers applying for college to senior citizens. A full 100 percent of donations go directly to a dozen established, well-vetted charities.

Donations, for example, go to Sound Generations, where Columbia City resident Buzz McCollough has volunteered for more than six years. McCollough drives Seattle senior citizens to appointments twice a week, happy to provide a hand on the walk to and from the car, and a friendly conversation about current events.

Sound Generations’ transportation program, which operates individual rides and shuttles, drove more than 6,500 people last year.

Fund For The Needy donations also helped the Salvation Army provide more than 86,700 bags of groceries last year to those who needed them. It helped Treehouse give 175,000 items such as clothes and school supplies to kids in foster care. And it helped Atlantic Street Center boost school attendance for Seattle students.

Back on their feet

Hopelink operates five food banks in the region while offering basic services such as housing, education and transportation. Last year, 64,400 people used those services.

“We help people become stable and help them get the tools and skill needed to exit poverty,” said Kris Betker, senior public-relations specialist.

In her six years with the organization, Betker has seen the power of a trip to the food bank. Many of those food banks are set up like grocery stores, where clients can browse shelves to find the food they want to take home.

Some clients have lost their jobs or are homeless, Betker said. Others need help in their years after retirement.

“I see these sweet, grandmotherly types come in with walkers,” she said. “… I just think, you know, that could be anybody’s grandmother and she’s probably worked her whole life. I wish it was not necessary but at least we’re able to help them.”

Hopelink’s volunteers outnumber its paid staff 10 to 1. Lewis, who had benefited from Hopelink’s services, jumped into volunteering this fall after she began to gain confidence, with Hopelink’s help.

Lewis had long suffered from panic attacks and agoraphobia, but when tragedy struck and the family lost its apartment last year, she stepped up.

“You just focus all of a sudden,” she said. “All of that kind of goes away. I would do anything for (my kids).”

Living out of the van was tough. The family was cramped, the kids quarreled and one of her daughters began rubbing out her hair from anxiety.

A January overnight count found 10,688 homeless people in King County, including more than 4,500 living on the streets.

Lewis was determined to find a safe living situation for her kids, after months of bouncing between family members’ homes. She called 2-1-1, the state’s network of community resources, and was eventually connected with Hopelink. The organization helped Lewis and her family get housing in a building it owns in Duvall.

Volunteer Jacque Lewis wheels a cart to a supermarket in Redmond to collect donations for the Hopelink food bank in Carnation. She’ll deliver the food in the minivan she lived in last year.  (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)
Volunteer Jacque Lewis wheels a cart to a supermarket in Redmond to collect donations for the Hopelink food bank in Carnation. She’ll deliver the food in the minivan she lived in last year. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)

The Lewises keep a garden plot out front where they grow peppers, cucumbers, artichokes and tomatoes.

“Teaching my kids to grow their own food is going to be the best thing for them if anything ever happens,” she said.

With help from Hopelink, she started to regain her confidence.

Last month, she went to pick up pizza for her family at the Duvall Papa Murphy’s. The wait was 45 minutes long.

Lewis applied for a job right then, and got it. She’s making plans to become a store manager.

“I didn’t think I was going to be this person,” she said as she guided her minivan, piled full of food, back to the Carnation Hopelink. “This person I’ve been wanting to be, I’ve been dreaming to be. And in the last few weeks, I can see it happening.”

A drive downtown

Where Hopelink has helped the 37-year-old Lewis get a stronger footing, another organization, Sound Generations, helps older people like James Palmer navigate aging.

Palmer hasn’t recovered enough from spinal surgery and a bladder condition to take public transportation — yet. But he plans to hop on a bus soon to his twice-a-week chiropractic appointments.

For now, Palmer, 75, relies on Sound Generations’ volunteer transportation program, which pairs volunteer drivers with local seniors who need rides to doctor’s offices or other appointments.

One Tuesday morning, Buzz McCollough is Palmer’s cheerful captain on the trip downtown to get to a back adjustment. McCollough, 69, has been driving for Sound Generations twice a week for more than six years and has known Palmer for three of them.

“It’s perfect for me,” said McCollough, who has volunteered at agencies in the region for more than 15 years. “I’m a real people person.”

Buzz McCollough, a volunteer driver with Sound Generations, helps James Palmer to a medical appointment. Palmer is recovering from surgery. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)
Buzz McCollough, a volunteer driver with Sound Generations, helps James Palmer to a medical appointment. Palmer is recovering from surgery. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)

McCollough and Palmer have a rapport that includes long discussions of politics and the changing face of Seattle.

“I’m a great talker,” Palmer says, laughing. “He just lets me run on.”

Sound Generations, previously known as Senior Services, has a team of about 400 volunteer drivers.

McCollough doesn’t just provide a ride and friendly conversation. He makes sure his passengers feel welcome the moment they step outside.

Many people he drives speak English as a second language, so McCollough will spend time the night before a ride learning how to say “hello” and a few basic phrases in Vietnamese, Korean or whatever language his passenger speaks.

The big upside for Palmer is the familiarity the program affords. Volunteers don’t show up in big vans or marked buses.

“It’s just like a friend came by to take you someplace,” Palmer said.