Daphne Hernandez-Suarez, 11, sat on the floor reading through new glasses. Her mother, Olga Suarez, searched tables heaping with donated clothing. The distracted, half-smile on both faces is identical.
On this day, Friday, April 15th, as on many others, those smiles were at least in part placed there by Homeless Gearâ€™s â€˜Children In Needâ€™ program.
â€œIt doesnâ€™t get better than that. It is so great to be in this position, with the community giving us the tools we need to help people,â€ said Sue Peterson, Program Coordinator for Homeless Gear: Children In Need, â€œWhat an honor it is, to be the conduit from the community to people in need.â€
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Crossed Paths Launch New Trail
Children In Need, a Fort Collins-based outreach program of Homeless Gear, founded by retired businessman Ken John, blossomed when Johnâ€™s path overlapped with that of Heidi Hood.
Hood was a paraprofessional and McKinney Liaison at Laurel Elementary in Fort Collins, working to assist homeless and near-homeless families and children.
At work she encountered children who wore Halloween costumes as regular clothing or shoes three sizes too big. In her free time she helped run an art program focused on providing homeless kids with a fun, expressive outlet.
â€œKen (John) had donated childrenâ€™s items that Homeless Gearâ€™s adult program had no direct use forâ€, Hood said. â€œAnd we tried to figure out a way to get them to the neediest families.â€
Children In Need was their answer.
John and Hood teamed up with Homeless Gear volunteers, donors and agencies in the community to create the program with a monthly distribution of clothing, sundries and food items specifically for homeless and near-homeless families.
Invitations, in the form of vouchers, are given to families by the Poudre School District or other Homeless Gear authorized agencies.
The vouchers provide Children In Need with an effective tool in identifying and serving those most in need of their help.
Volunteers are the backbone of Homeless Gear and especially Children In Need, which according to Hood encourages families to volunteer â€” a unique quality in the non-profit world.
â€œIf we want to teach our kids to have compassion for others, let them start young and see that they can make a difference, even when they are small,â€ Hood said.
Daunting Monthly Chores
Clothing of all sizes and seasons as well as toiletries and household items get donated to Homeless Gear for sorting and distribution.
Each month volunteers collect, sort, store, reorganize, display and give away hundreds of items. When the distribution is over, it starts all over again.
Growing their volunteer network and finding new agencies with access to their target demographics are program director Sue Petersonâ€™s mandate.
To this end, Homeless Gear recently entered into a partnership with the Homeless Prevention Initiative (HPI), a branch of the national United Way, which helps 900 people annually with their rent payments.
HPI will give Children In Need program vouchers to qualifying families already in their system, increasing the chances that near-homeless families stay in their homes.
Peterson also worries about keeping the enthusiastic volunteers busy and satisfied but is overwhelmed by the outpouring of support, especially among students.
â€œThe CSU students have been incredible and weâ€™ve been amazed by the fraternities and sororities. They are all about service,â€ Peterson said.
Results Easy To Read
Olga Suarez deeply appreciates the work Children In Need does and the compassion of others, without which her familyâ€™s struggle would be more difficult.
â€œThe clothing, the groceries make it so we can spend our wages on other things our family really needs,â€ Suarez said from behind that half-smile, her eyes moving to Daphne, who continued reading and grinning, like all kids should.
Graduating Chief Photographer Michael Bettis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org