The two women don't know one another, and their circumstances are very different or are they? June Johnson, 49, of Bellevue is a Washington-state native whose only travel...
The two women don’t know one another, and their circumstances are very different or are they?
June Johnson, 49, of Bellevue is a Washington-state native whose only travel outside the United States has been a few visits to British Columbia. She’s a bookkeeper and considers herself a good one, although her current job only gives her about 16 hours of work a week.
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Ngoc-Em Le, 39, from Vietnam has been in the United States barely a decade. Denied an education in her homeland, she struggles with English and has needed help to understand the basics of banking and money management.
Besides the fact that they’re both proud mothers of young children, what Johnson and Le have in common is that each is in a time of transition. And each is being assisted by an agency that believes the most effective way to help people is to equip them to help themselves.
Hopelink, headquartered in Redmond, is providing Johnson with subsidized housing, counseling and other services that have enabled her to start over after a relationship she says was marked by verbal and psychological abuse.
And the Atlantic Street Center of South Seattle is assisting Le with English, has provided money-management instruction, and is helping her take part in activities ranging from a simple bowling outing to community cultural celebrations.
Hopelink and Atlantic Street Center are two of the 12 agencies receiving donations this year from The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy.
Both are long-standing, multifaceted organizations that touch thousands of lives every year in the Puget Sound area.
Hopelink, in addition to providing emergency and transitional housing, operates six food banks, offers emergency financial aid, provides child care, helps with heating bills, transports people to medical appointments, donates holiday gifts to needy families, assists with job-hunting efforts, and conducts classes on topics such as financial management, English and computers.
Atlantic Street Center, with three Central and South Seattle locations, offers youth and family services including parenting classes, homework clubs, family-education activities and field trips, leadership seminars, mental-health counseling, youth drop-in centers and support for grandparents raising children.
At both agencies, the bottom line is the same people helping people.
“There’s never going to be enough good things I could say about Hopelink,” Johnson said. “They don’t make you feel like you’re a basket case. They treat you like you are somebody.”
Shortly before Thanksgiving, Johnson and her daughter, Carly, 10, moved into a two-bedroom apartment at Hopelink Place, a 20-unit “transitional housing” complex built on land donated by the city of Bellevue.
“All that I needed”
“We walked in here and it was like, ‘Whoa, this is awesome.’ It was clean and there were beds. That was all that I needed,” Johnson said.
Johnson decided in October that ending her 11-year relationship with Carly’s father the two were not married was necessary for her own, and her daughter’s, well-being. She was familiar with Hopelink, which had provided food for the family a couple of years ago when finances were tight.
For the first week, Hopelink gave Johnson vouchers so she and Carly could stay at a motel. After that, they spent several weeks at a Hopelink shelter until the apartment opened at Hopelink Place.
When they walked in, one of the first things they saw was a wooden crate, spray-painted green and decorated with a ribbon. Inside was a feast waiting to happen: pumpkin-pie filling, pie crust, Jell-O, canned sweet potatoes, olives, corn, a big bag of rolls and a $15 grocery-store certificate.
“I just about cried,” Johnson said.
To stay at Hopelink Place, Johnson pays 30 percent of her income for rent. She’s required to be in a domestic-violence support group and to meet weekly with a case manager, going over her budget and her plans for getting steady employment and taking the next steps toward independence.
“They have you take on responsibility,” Johnson said. “But at the same time they give you a break so you can afford to do it.”
Enemy of a regime
In 1978, when South Vietnam came under communist control, Le was barely a teenager. But the fact that her father had been a police officer made her family enemies of the new regime. Their home was seized, they were sent to a rural village and Le was forbidden to go to school.
That lack of educational opportunity in her youth has affected Le for decades, and it is one of the reasons she has needed the support provided at the NewHolly Youth and Family Center in South Seattle, operated by the Atlantic Street Center.
“I have learned so much here. It has been a big help,” Le said. She first came to the center more than two years ago for help with her homework while she was taking a community-college English-as-a-second-language class.
Though her English has improved greatly, she still stops by the center to get help with documents such as forms that her son Quyen, 12, and daughter Abby, 7, bring home from school.
Le, who would like to be a nurse some day, has a part-time job caring for two autistic children. Her husband, also from Vietnam, works as a machinist.
For their family and those of other Southeast Asian and East African immigrants, activities organized by Atlantic Street Center help combat feelings of isolation. Le has become an active participant in NewHolly functions. She did a presentation for a Chinese cultural workshop and has helped to prepare food, set up and clean up at other events.
“I love to help,” she said. “I want my kids to see what I am doing, so we are helping the community.”
Besides their creative approaches to social issues, another thing Hopelink and Atlantic Street Center have in common is a savvy, experienced leader at the helm.
At Hopelink, Doreen Marchione, former mayor of Redmond, has been executive director since 1992 and helped shift the group’s focus from emergency services to the support that families need for lasting, positive changes. During her tenure, Hopelink’s annual budget has grown from $9 million to $37 million.
At the Atlantic Street Center, Edith Chambers, who started as a volunteer 28 years ago, became executive director in 2002. Over the past decade, the agency’s budget has grown 44 percent, to $2.5 million.
Marchione said despite a 14 percent increase in the need for food at Hopelink’s six food banks this year, her agency still encounters the misconception that poverty doesn’t exist east of Lake Washington. “There are still people who are still amazed we are running shelters and emergency housing on the Eastside.”
Although 95 percent of the families who leave Hopelink’s transitional-housing program do get permanent housing, the agency has to turn away 12 families for each one it helps, due to the number of apartments available.
Although sources of government support for social programs have been cut in recent years, Chambers is gratified by help from individual and corporate backers, and she is encouraged by innovative programs being developed to help those in need.
In a pilot project called “Parent-Child Home Program,” Atlantic Street Center staffers visit children as young as 2 years old. On alternate visits, a worker will bring a book, and then a toy, spending a half-hour reading to the youngster, with a parent close at hand.
“It encourages the parent and child to bond in the process of learning,” Chambers said.
Although poverty and disadvantage remain widespread, Chambers remains motivated by the individual successes she has seen over the years.
“I believe in the power of change,” she said. “I believe that given the right support and given the right environment, we’re destined to do great things.”
Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or firstname.lastname@example.org