After working until 3 a.m. as a janitorial supervisor, Basim Mohammedameen sleeps for a few hours and takes his son to school. Then, he heads to his own class.
Four mornings a week, the 47-year-old walks into a classroom at Asian Counseling and Referral Service’s (ACRS) campus in Seattle’s Rainier Valley neighborhood with dozens of other students. They practice their English-language skills, holding up whiteboards after writing out words the instructor calls out.
“I’m so tired, and I want to sleep because I’ve been working all night. But I’m happy when I come to school,” Mohammedameen said. “This is my dream, to learn how to read and write (in English). It’s hard, but I have to do it.”
Mohammedameen lived in Iraq and said he spent nearly a decade setting up camps for U.S. soldiers before moving to Seattle in 2016, in search of a better life for his children, now 4 and 7. Through ACRS’ Ready to Work program, which provides English and digital literacy courses to low-income Seattle residents, Mohammedameen hopes to gain skills that will help him become an HVAC tech and apply for citizenship next year.
Asian Counseling and Referral Service is one of 12 nonprofits in the Puget Sound region that benefit from readers’ donations to The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy, an annual philanthropy drive that starts this weekend. Donors have given more than $25 million since the fund started 40 years ago, with The Seattle Times covering all operating costs.
“Now in our 41st year, we have set our highest goal ever, $2 million,” said Seattle Times President Alan Fisco. “This year’s drive will again serve agencies that provide for ever-growing needs from community members of all ages, from infants to seniors. And every penny donated by our generous readers goes to our participating agencies.”
Last year’s Fund For The Needy raised nearly $1.5 million, with about 3,800 donors contributing between $1.70 and $38,000 to help local nonprofits provide vital services.
Donors’ gifts, for example, helped The Salvation Army serve 300,000 meals and provide rental assistance to about 3,300 King and Snohomish county households. They contributed to Youth Eastside Services’ work providing 7,500 people mental-health and substance-use services, and helped Sound Generations deliver 439,092 meals to seniors.
Unexpectedly raising kids, caregivers find support
At a support group run by Atlantic Street Center, another of the nonprofits served by Fund For The Needy, a group of caregivers gathers in Seattle’s Rainier Beach neighborhood each week and finds comfort in being with others who understand the challenges of unexpectedly raising a child.
For the group’s members — many of them grandmothers raising grandchildren — the meetings are a welcome break from the nonstop lives they didn’t know they’d still have.
“We’re a big handful,” member Denita Simmons’ 12-year-old godson said at a recent meeting.
Simmons has raised the boy and his 14-year-old brother for nearly a decade. The 63-year-old also helps care for her 8-year-old grandson. They’re one of about 20 families who attend the meetings, where caregivers and children share a meal together, then break off so the adults can learn new skills and talk while the children play.
Paula, who asked to use only her first name to protect her 7-year-old granddaughter’s privacy, has attended the meetings for about a month with the child, whom she is raising alone. In her 60s, Paula thought she’d be living on her own schedule, working more and traveling. But she found herself, again, juggling the schedule of a working parent.
“When this is all thrown on you, you feel like you’re all alone and that there’s no one else going through these problems,” Paula said. “The other people in this group let you know it’s challenging but it’s worth it.”
Atlantic Street Center picks up some of the group members’ children from school and offers tutoring and after-school activities. It helped one mother advocate for her child’s special needs in school and has provided counseling or grocery gift cards for others.
Finding joy at a food bank
What Dawn Thompson loves most about Hopelink’s Shoreline food bank is the flowers.
They’re a small luxury for the 275 families who visit the food bank each week, which is set up like a supermarket to afford clients more dignity. Hopelink, another of the organizations served by the fund, offers a range of services, including energy assistance and housing, but its five food banks make up one of its largest.
At the Shoreline food bank, carts sit at the front of the store, packages of food line fully-stocked shelves and one volunteer even hands out samples from a cooking demonstration. On a recent weekday, volunteers cut the stems of bouquets donated by local grocery stores and replenished buckets, from which Thompson selected a bundle of pink and yellow flowers.
“It may not mean something to some people, but when I was going through what I was going through … I wouldn’t let myself buy flowers,” Thompson said. “To have them there, it’s like, ‘Oh, I can have this joy. I can have this.'”
Thompson was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006. She was in her 40s and didn’t have family in the area to support her when she needed a ride to the doctor or had to stop working. Hopelink made sure she had food and rides to and from radiation, chemotherapy and follow-up appointments.
“I was crying on the phone making the ride appointments, and the operator said, ‘It’s going to be OK. We’ll get you through this,'” Thompson said.
Economic boom leaves some behind
Reader JoAnn Larson has lived in Seattle for nearly 50 years. She started donating to Fund For The Needy about five years ago out of concern that the area’s rapid growth was leaving some residents behind.
“So much has changed in just the last couple years. We see the poverty. It’s in your face. And there was need before that, too,” Larson said.
This year, Seattle’s median household income jumped to $93,500, the third highest among large cities in the U.S., with striking wealth disparity along racial lines. The city became the most expensive for renters outside of California, low-income residents have been priced out, and the most diverse areas of the city have shown signs of gentrification as white people became the largest racial group in South Seattle, according to reporting by Seattle Times data columnist Gene Balk.
Some of the fund’s nonprofits have seen the impact on their clients. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound has noticed more demand for mentors in South King County and Pierce County, as well as youth enrolled in the program moving south as their families seek more affordable areas. Atlantic Street Center recently opened an office in Kent, as it’s provided increased services in the area.
The Seattle Times aims to support the nonprofits as they face increasing demand and the changing needs of residents in the Puget Sound region. The effort to raise $2 million has gotten an early boost with the generosity of one reader, who bequeathed $500,000 to the fund in her will.
Over the coming weeks, Seattle Times journalists will bring you a look into the 12 organizations that benefit from Fund For The Needy, which are: 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.