By Ruth Ferris
The Eatonville Family Agency (EFA) is valued by many in the region for its commitment to caring for those in need. It has worked hard to be creative and effective in the ways it serves its clients. While many in the community know about the food bank, backpack program, and clothing bank, many are not aware of other important client services that the EFA offers.
Just because safety net programs are in place, many of us assume that those who need them know how to gain access to those services.
I was rudely jolted from this assumption when a cousin informed me she had been diagnosed with cancer. I only learned this because I was planning a family reunion in Eatonville, and she made an effort to get there from Arizona. She shared with me that she had been diagnosed with cancer and that she couldn’t afford the treatment, the percent that she needed to pay being beyond her financial capacity. She was stoically facing significant illness and probably impending death. She saw the trip to the family reunion as a last time to see relatives.
The story does have a good ending, for I was able to contact her devoted niece, who was able to find a way for her to get into immediate treatment.
That experience was followed shortly by hearing from another family member whose vision was impaired because he couldn’t afford the expense of an eye exam and new glasses. I was able to assist him in accessing benefits from the VA that he didn’t realize were available to him.
I reasoned that if these two people hadn’t figured out how to advocate for themselves, that there were probably many more like them in the Eatonville community. That landed me in the office of Jennifer Vasquez at the EFA, furiously taking notes on what she can do for those in our community who need services.
Jennifer is a terrific woman. If you or someone you know needs assistance, she is the “go-to” person. She says that the definition of those who need government services is changing, for it is not only those in poverty who need services. Many of the “working poor” earn salaries that are inadequate to provide their families with basic needs such as housing and food. Many do not have jobs with health and retirement benefits the way many jobs of a generation ago did. While the EFA cannot solve the underlying causes of the problem, it can help those who need assistance to alleviate its damaging effects. With Alana Smith, the EFA director, Jennifer has worked out goals that are important and attainable for a client services advocate for the Eatonville region.
• GOAL 1: Increase the relationship with DSHS (state Department of Human Services).
A short time ago, Congress removed millions of able-bodied adults from access to food stamps unless they worked or gave volunteer time to public service. This sounds very good until one looks at what this means. Jennifer Vasquez describes it as many being “thrown to the wolves.”
Many who needed food stamps came to the EFA to volunteer to comply with the rule. Difficult, because of the large number of people sent to prison in the “war” on drugs (more in prison in the United States than in any other industrialized country in the world), many have prison records. They are barred from working in settings that have children. It doesn’t matter that they have paid their debt to society and haven’t used drugs for years. Part of Jennifer’s job is to help them find the few places where they are allowed to volunteer. She has been working to establish a partnership with places like national parks, for they do have volunteer opportunities for those barred from conventional settings that include children.
• Goal 2: Increase SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) education and awareness.
Alana Smith has encouraged Jennifer to attend community events such as chamber of commerce meetings, Eatonville school events, TOTS classes. There she shares the stories of the difference a helping hand can mean in time of crisis. She puts faces and stories on the statistics of those needing assistance.
A recent couple was one who never would have thought that they needed assistance. They both had good jobs until the man, at age 38, had a heart attack. His wife was hospitalized shortly after that. They both will be productive workers again, but the help they received in their desperate hour enabled them to keep their dignity and hope.
A challenge Jennifer is working on is helping those who have been in prison find good jobs. Many who have been incarcerated continue to pay the penalty for their past mistakes by being cut off from access to meaningful jobs. Enabling those with high-level job skills to find jobs that utilize them is win-win, adding their skills to a society that needs skilled workers and integrating those with prison records back into society so that they can regain a meaningful and productive life. Jennifer says that developing connections is important, for every now and then there is an unexpected connection that can result in a helping hand given at a critical time.
• Goal 3: Increase clients’ access to use of computers.
Jennifer has designed a curriculum to teach those needing computer skills, TOT, Thinking of Tomorrow. This is new, but already the EFA has computers furnished by a grant that can enable those wishing to learn new computer skills.
• Goal 4: Rural outreach.
Jennifer uses some of her time to travel to nearby towns that need our support, an example being the Morton Food Bank. EFA was assisting many of their food bank clients when they had to close for a few months. They are now open again. We benefit when our friends in the region have resources available close to those who need them.
• Goal 5: Make our services available for people who have working hours.
The EFA is now open until 8 p.m. every Thursday. You may contact Jennifer Vasquez at Eatonville Family Agency at 360-832-6805.
Ruth Ferris is a member of the Eatonville Family Agency Board.
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