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When her job hunt faltered and money for cheap motels ran dry, Velma Chaney found herself homeless for the second time in her adult life — and wound up living in Nickelsville for a handful of days last spring, sharing a tent with her fiancé, sister, infant nephew and three young children.

To shield her kids from the direness of their situation, Chaney made a game of it: “I told them we were camping.”

After a few months in a temporary apartment provided by the YWCA, Chaney and her family recently moved into transitional housing, a four-bedroom duplex in Seattle’s Central District that’s a 15-minute walk to Wellspring Family Services on Rainier Avenue South.

Chaney was introduced to the agency, one of 12 that benefit from The Seattle Times’ Fund for the Needy, when her caseworker got her preschool-aged sons enrolled in Wellspring’s Early Learning Center. A bus came by the YWCA shelter each morning to pick them up.

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Chaney, 27, then landed a three-month internship in Wellspring’s Baby Boutique, where homeless parents can “shop” up to five times a year for seasonally appropriate clothing for infants to teens, and pick out pricey items like strollers and car seats — all for free.

Chaney, who is to start classes at Seattle Central Community College next month, has stayed on as a volunteer in the Baby Boutique, keeping the database updated and offering other parents the same kind of warmth and support she’s found there.

On a recent Friday, Chaney uncharacteristically broke down, but her tears were happy ones: That morning, someone had slipped a Christmas card addressed to Chaney through the Baby Boutique’s mail slot. Inside was $100.

“Right now, we’re sleeping on air mattresses,” so the money will go toward furniture, Chaney said. “The card just said ‘Secret Santa’ on it … Tell whoever did it, ‘Thank you.’ ”

Ruthann Howell, Wellspring’s president and CEO, has witnessed countless examples of what she calls “the general goodness of people” during her 23 years leading the organization that has been helping individuals and families in crisis since 1892.

“I think there’s a human instinct to give back, to do something to help others, regardless of your circumstances,” Howell said, which is why she thinks so many of Wellspring’s clients end up volunteering or giving financial donations to the agency. “We have seen so many people giving something back when they’ve experienced being supported.”

She said Wellspring has been part of the “family of agencies” supported by The Times’ Fund for the Needy since the mid-1990s. Now in its 35th year, the Fund has raised more than $16.5 million for agencies that help children, families and senior citizens.

Howell and her staff of therapists, teachers and housing specialists share a philosophy that the best way to help homeless children work through trauma is to stabilize the adults in their lives.

From there, they work with parents and caregivers to address old wounds inflicted during their own childhoods through domestic violence, neglect, substance abuse or mental-health issues that often have a generational impact. Wellspring also offers therapeutic programs aimed at nurturing the parent-child bond.

Neuroscience is finally proving what staff at Wellspring have long known: Toxic stress — from witnessing domestic violence, or living with the constant uncertainty of where you’re going to sleep on any given night — fundamentally alters brain development, especially from birth to age 5.

Adverse childhood experiences have been shown to have a lifelong impact, which is why Wellspring focuses on interrupting that cycle through prevention and intervention.

As one of Seattle’s oldest, continuously running social-service agencies, Wellspring — which has had a number of different names in its 121-year history — has stayed in business not just by adapting to the community’s changing needs, but by anticipating them.

More than 5,000 people received services through Wellspring last year. Over $800,000 in donated merchandise was distributed to more than 1,000 families through the Baby Boutique, and 83 homeless children were enrolled in the Early Learning Center, the majority of them children of color living with single moms.

“We’re giving them hope, giving them tangible tools. We don’t have a lot of deal breakers,” Howell said. “You can make different choices and have a different path for your life and your kids. And we’re not going to give up on you.”

Adelita Guerrero-Ortiz
was living on Beacon Hill with her mom, her boyfriend, their son and other family members when they were evicted around Christmas 2011. Her mom, plagued by health problems, died in January 2012. Family members split up, bouncing between other relatives and cheap motels.

“I’m taking care of my 16-year-old brother now,” said Guerrero-Ortiz, 27, who with her boyfriend and 8-year-old son is also caring for her boyfriend’s elderly father in his home in the Rainier Valley.

She, too, landed an internship at Wellspring’s Baby Boutique and continues to volunteer there. When she started, “I was very shy, very quiet. I really didn’t speak too much.”

But the other women at Wellspring helped her “open myself up” and by learning new skills — like how to use a computer — Guerrero-Ortiz said she now has self-confidence she’s never experienced before. She just earned her GED and plans to train as a respiratory therapist.

“I love it here. It’s just when I come in here, all the stress and everything I feel in life is just gone.”

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or

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