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Genevieve Benjamin shifts gears in an instant.

One moment she’s moving to a line-dance beat at the Central Area Senior Center, happy in the camaraderie she has found there, particularly since the death of her husband in 2009.

When the music stops and her fellow dancers take a break, she circulates around the room, handing out her homemade muffins to those who have been watching, some from wheelchairs, some remembering the days that they, too, were among the dancers.

“It gives me a good feeling to see them,” said Benjamin.

Ten miles north, Karla Petersen also knows something about shifting gears. Her days are a whirlwind of activity that starts with getting a half-dozen foster and adopted kids off to school, doing the cooking, cleaning and errand-running, getting children to medical appointments, counseling sessions and after-school activities — and refereeing shared time on the family’s single computer.

“I just want to help them be kids,” she said.

As The Seattle Times today opens its 36th annual Fund For The Needy campaign, it seeks to honor and assist those who help others.

The 12 nonprofit organizations aided by the fund run the gamut: They operate food banks, shelters and senior centers. They provide safety and support to victims of violence and abuse. They give disadvantaged youngsters the psychological, material and educational boosts toward a pathway to success.

Big numbers tell parts of the story:

• Staff and volunteer drivers of Senior Services logged more than a million miles last year, taking 6,248 clients in King County to nearly 146,000 medical appointments, meal programs, senior centers and essential errands.

• At Treehouse, nearly 100,000 items — clothing, toys and school supplies — were distributed to 1,700 foster children from throughout King County.

• The Salvation Army served more than 304,000 meals and provided 54,000 bags of groceries to men, women and children in the Seattle area.

Since The Fund For The Needy was created in 1979, Seattle Times readers have donated more than $17.7 million.

Its chief success lies not in dollars raised, but in lives touched.

More than two decades ago, Petersen, a nurse practitioner then in her early 30s, “hadn’t met my soul mate, but I really, really wanted to be a mom.”

She took in the first of what would be seven foster children — all from difficult backgrounds and each of whom has been helped by Treehouse.

Petersen can get emotional when she thinks about what these children have been through.

One girl told her it hurts more to get whacked on the bare behind with a wire hanger than a plastic one. One boy said he’d been taught to shoplift before he was 5.

Another daughter saw her parents clash so fiercely they often went to jail or the hospital.

At Petersen’s Northgate-area home, tangible evidence of Treehouse’s help can be seen starting at the coat closet by the front door.

“This is Treehouse. This is Treehouse. This is Treehouse,” said Petersen, pointing out winter coats. Treehouse also supplied the box of Legos on the floor and most of the bicycles and other toys in the driveway.

Petersen and her children can make a half-dozen visits a year to the agency’s “Wearhouse,” designed to make the experience feel like shopping, rather than getting a handout.

Through another Treehouse program called “Little Wishes,” Petersen’s children have been able to attend camp, take swim lessons, visit Wild Waves water park and more. Treehouse staffers also have advocated for her kids at their schools, helping them get the time and attention they need.

Petersen, who addressed Treehouse donors at the group’s annual fundraising luncheon this year, said her role is to help her children “grow new, healthy memories, not to replace the past, but to help heal it and put it into a safe and useful place in their life.”

Her seven children now range in age from 8 to 26, and all except the oldest daughter are living with her. They all came to her as foster children and, over the years, she has adopted them.

Petersen, who once had a health-care job with a tribe, is white, but all her foster kids are Native American. Keeping them connected to their heritage is a priority, Petersen said, and four have had “naming ceremonies” acknowledging their identities.

She is also caring for a 10-year-old grandson who has high-functioning autism.

“Karla’s compassion and selfless devotion to the kids in her care is truly remarkable,” said Treehouse CEO Janis Avery. Avery said the agency depends on dedicated foster parents to help children “experience the essential childhood activities that all kids deserve.”

In a relatively new program, “Graduation Success,” Treehouse worked with more than 500 students at 100 schools in the past year, giving them the support and coaching to boost their chances of graduating from high school and moving toward college or vocational school.

Among the most important things Treehouse provides, Petersen said, is exposing children to the satisfaction of giving, a lesson they are carrying forward.

Case in point: One of her daughters, who was introduced to gymnastics through Treehouse, was so grateful she organized a leotard drive at several gyms for a school-service project. She collected 300 leotards and $1,300 for Treehouse.

Simple statistics document the need for efforts such as the Fund For The Needy.

An estimated 69,000 children were living below the poverty level in King County last year, according to the Census Bureau — a 4.5 percent increase from 2012.

An overnight count of King County’s homeless early this year found 3,123 people spending the night without shelter, a 14 percent increase over the previous year. And that doesn’t include the 6,171 in shelters and transitional-housing programs.

At Senior Services, executive director Paula Houston said the future needs of her agency’s clientele are as clear as the upward sloping line on charts depicting King County’s aging population.

By 2025, King County is expected to have 480,000 people 60 and over, twice the number there were in 2000.

Among those 85 and older, a group likely to be dealing with physical or mental disabilities, the county is expecting 37,600 residents in 2025, up more than 53 percent from 2000.

As government dollars become harder to get, Senior Services is relying more on charitable sources such as the Times fund, Houston said. “Our meals programs are often times the only meal someone gets.”

Senior Services compounds its effectiveness by making strong use of volunteers, many of whom are seniors themselves. Last year, 3,336 volunteers supplemented the work of the agency’s 250 employees.

At the Central Area Senior Center, volunteers are key to just about every activity.

It wasn’t a financial need, but a psychological one, that drew Genevieve Benjamin to the Central Area Senior Center.

It has provided friends, activities and connections that helped fill the void after her husband, who had been active and fit his whole life, died of kidney failure and a stroke on his 74th birthday in 2009.

“I consider this my second home,” said Benjamin, a retired social worker. She dances twice a week with the “Senior Sliders” and plays bridge several times a week.

A session geared to people who have lost a spouse — a familiar circumstance among this population group, also was helpful.

Benjamin said she’s happiest when she is giving back. That includes the two afternoons a week she works the reception desk, greeting potential new members.

While some members are on sound financial footing, others can benefit from connecting with programs to help with housing, utility bills, minor home repairs, legal assistance and transportation.

Benjamin also enjoys working in the center’s kitchen to help with events such as the monthly birthday celebrations, which honor all members with birthdays that month.

“I feel good when I give, so I guess I am selfish,” she said. “But in a good way.”

Jack Broom: jbroom@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2222