Powered by readers’ generosity, The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy has given more than $22M to local nonprofits — so we all can help one another. Here are two stories of making things better.

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It was a bright, spring day last year, and Bahja Abokor and Sarah Welch were circling Russell Investments Center in downtown Seattle. A parking spot seemed impossible to find, and Abokor was ready to call it quits.

“I thought, ‘There’s no parking, this is a sign,’” Abokor, now 18, recalled.

Abokor was on her way to a Starbucks job fair, and she really did not want to go. School was almost out, and a job did not fit into her summer-fun plans.

But Welch insisted — Abokor was going, and Welch was going with her. Abokor and Welch met through Big Brothers Big Sisters, and one of the things Welch wanted to pass on to her “little sister” was a sense of professionalism.

Abokor, who has respected Welch since the day they met, went to the fair, submitted an application, and got the job. She has loved working at Starbucks ever since, charming regular customers and saving money for college, which she will begin in January.

“When I talked to Sarah, I would think ‘yeah, I want to be that cool adult,’ ” Abokor said.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound is one of the 12 organizations that benefit from The Seattle TimesFund For The Needy. The fund, now in its 39th year, has raised more than $22 million from readers since it launched in 1979 — including a record-breaking $1.67 million last year.

Donations from readers — from $1 to thousands of dollars — help people in the community with everything from food to housing and early learning to job training.

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 season, The Times is telling how the 12 organizations make a difference in the lives of thousands, and the impact donors can have. Click here to make a tax-deductible donation to the Fund For The Needy.

From this series:

A full 100 percent of donations goes to the 12 charities, which provide services such as emergency shelters for those experiencing homelessness, after-school programs for at-risk kids, and transportation for senior citizens.

Fund For The Needy donations last year helped The Salvation Army serve 106,804 meals. They helped Kent Youth and Family Services offer counseling to hundreds of kids and their families. Donations helped enable Treehouse to hand out 175,000 items of clothing and school supplies to kids in foster care.

Reader donations also help Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound support their 727 Big-Little matches, which are designed to provide mentorship and friendship for kids facing adversity.

A role model for adulthood

Abokor was having a tough time in school when she signed up for Big Brothers Big Sisters. It wasn’t so much her classes that were tripping her up. It was her mood.

“I had a lot of anger,” she said.

Abokor, who grew up in Seattle’s Central District, lost several friends to violence and suicide while she was growing up. She had anger problems, and would sometimes lash out at other students at school.

Sarah Welch, left, and Bahja Abokor met through Big Brothers Big Sisters. As the Big Sister, Welch has helped encourage and mentor Abokor, who has a job she likes and is saving for college.  (Rachel Lerman/The Seattle Times)
Sarah Welch, left, and Bahja Abokor met through Big Brothers Big Sisters. As the Big Sister, Welch has helped encourage and mentor Abokor, who has a job she likes and is saving for college. (Rachel Lerman/The Seattle Times)

It was a rough patch, she said, but then she switched to Interagency Academy during her freshman year of high school. The teachers at Interagency, a network of alternative, public schools in Seattle, watched out for her and encouraged her, and the school urged her to reconnect with Big Brothers Big Sisters, which she had initially joined in middle school.

Soon, she met Welch, and the two clicked immediately.

Big Brothers Big Sisters asks “Bigs” to meet with their “Littles” for about four hours a month, which helps to build mentoring relationships and friendships. Other than that, said Puget Sound CEO Louis Garcia, matches can largely decide when to meet and how to spend their time.

“We focus on mentoring, and we have a menu of different ways to deliver that,” he said. “If you are available in the evenings and weekends, we can do that. If you are in town for the workweek, we can do that.”

Big Brothers Big Sisters helps organize events for the matches, and has started a few school-based programs that advise kids with school and college choices.

The organization currently has 800 kids on its waiting list, 600 of them boys. Anyone older than 18 can volunteer to be a mentor, Garcia said.

When Welch and Abokor first connected, they would walk Welch’s dog and munch on granola bars. They kept planning to work out together but seemed to find more fun things to do, the pair remembered, laughing.

Welch is 26, married and works at Boeing — which Abokor found impressive and wanted to emulate. She credits her professional relationship with co-workers and bosses to Welch’s influence.

“It’s always good to know that there is someone, separate from your family, that you can always call and talk to,” Abokor said.

Welch would give Abokor advice when it seemed like she was seeking it, but mostly she just listened, Welch said.

“Bahja was always saying something especially insightful, and I would encourage her,” Welch said.

It isn’t all serious talks for the pair, who like teasing each other and discovering new music. One of their favorite outings was seeing Beyoncé in concert, with tickets given to Big Brothers Big Sisters by a donor.

Neither knew many of the songs, they admit, but it was still a blast.

Things are changing for Abokor, who now describes herself as cheerful most of the time. She moved to a new Starbucks location in Seattle Children’s hospital, where she hopes to meet inspiring medical professionals. Abokor will study dental hygiene at Seattle Central College beginning in January, and plans to go on to grad school to become an oral surgeon.

“I always learned a lot from Bahja,” Welch said.

“Ditto,” Abokor added.

A warm place to rest

Every night around 6:30, the large red doors at Seattle City Hall open to make room for a cart carrying enough warm food to feed at least 75 people. Wendy Montiel meets the staff from OSL, previously known as Operation: Sack Lunch, at the door, and quickly gets to work laying out the platters of food for the long line waiting just outside the doors.

Montiel, 52, is homeless and sleeps each night at the shelter, which is operated by The Salvation Army, another of the 12 agencies benefiting from the Fund For The Needy.

Montiel likes pitching in, she said, and especially loves interacting with The Salvation Army staff who are there each night.

One staffer cracks her up with his Three Stooges impressions, and each appreciates her help, she said.

Wendy Montiel serves dinner at the Seattle City Hall Shelter. The Salvation Army operates three overnight shelters in the city, as well as cold-weather shelters as winter sets in. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Wendy Montiel serves dinner at the Seattle City Hall Shelter. The Salvation Army operates three overnight shelters in the city, as well as cold-weather shelters as winter sets in. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

“I feel grateful being here,” Montiel said. “I’ve got a roof over my head. If it weren’t for them, I bet half these people wouldn’t know where to go.”

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The shelter, which is funded by the city and operated by The Salvation Army, provides room for 75 people to sleep and have dinner each night.

“It’s very important to help people feel comfortable — safe and warm so they are able to rest,” said James Hadlock, assistant supervisor for shelters at The Salvation Army. “The emotion I hear most from people is gratitude.”

Homelessness is a crisis in Seattle and the surrounding areas, Hadlock said, and the organization is doing all it can to help. An overnight count this year found that more than 11,600 people in King County were experiencing homelessness — living on the streets, in cars, in tent encampments or in shelters and transitional housing.

The Salvation Army manages three overnight shelters in Seattle, as well as cold-weather shelters as winter sets in. The City Hall space was first used as a cold-weather shelter in 2011 and was extended to become full time in 2013.

The shelter also helps The Salvation Army reach out to people who may benefit from some of their other services, whether its substance-abuse recovery programs or help training for jobs. Fund for the Needy dollars go to support several of these services that help prevent homelessness and get people back on their feet.

The staff gets to know people well at the shelter — in fact, the shelter’s operations favor those who return more than one night in a row. They are able to get a guaranteed spot on one of the 75 sleeping mats, and keep the same blanket they had used the previous night.

A woman reads as she settles down for the evening at the Seattle City Hall Shelter. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
A woman reads as she settles down for the evening at the Seattle City Hall Shelter. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

Larry Peifer, 31, was about to spend his second night at the shelter in early November. He was recently enrolled in a Salvation Army recovery program, and was busy applying to live in sober-living homes. The Salvation Army helped him find the shelter in the meantime, and encouraged him to apply for jobs.

Peifer, a longtime cook who went to college for culinary arts, had a promising job lead at a local restaurant.

“I’d be on the street, probably, or dead in a gutter somewhere without The Salvation Army,” he said. “This place saved my life. It really did.”

The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy benefits 12 organizations: Asian Counseling and Referral Service, Atlantic Street Center, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Childhaven, Hopelink, Kent Youth and Family Services, Kindering, The Salvation Army, Sound Generations, Treehouse, Wellspring Family Services, and Youth Eastside Services.