Joan Wallace's decade-long personal commitment to a tiny non-profit she created to help poverty-level Hispanic children in the Yakima Valley community of Granger would likely surprise many who are aware of her more visible and extensive involvement in community and philanthropic causes. Those broader commitments have marked her and her husband, Bob's, careers as principals of Bellevue-based Wallace Properties.
In fact, those involvements, ranging from Seattle Pacific University and Overlake Hospital to Medical Teams International and their co-chairing of Puget Sound Blood Center's annual auction to kids-focused programs on the Eastside of King County, prompted a special recognition a couple of weeks ago.
The National Association of Industrial and Office Properties honored the Wallaces with the organization's Legacy Award, apparently the first time a couple has received the honor and the first time for a woman.
But despite the array of her major involvements, it probably isn't all that surprising to those who know her that she would launch and personally nurture what began as a Thanksgiving dinner conversation about the fact Granger's children would be going without their usual two in-school meals over the Christmas holidays because school would be out.
And "not surprised" is probably particularly true of the several hundred people on her personal email list who got the the first appeal following the dinner conversation between Wallace and her sister in law, Janet Wheaton, then a Granger school principal.
Now a letter is emailed to those who have given in the past several years and that appeal to friends represents virtually the only source of funding for Friends of Granger, the 501c3 that was incorporated following that first outreach in 2003. The amount of money raised each year isn't large, generally less than $30,000. But the money goes a long way when there's no overhead.
Those who have been readers of The Harp for some time will recognize that I've written before about Wallace's unusual commitment to a small non-profit cause distant from her Bellevue home on behalf of a small community that census figures indicate is 85 percent Hispanic or Latino with the majority living below the poverty level.
But it's a story that deserves retelling, and I wanted to explore with Wallace how it has gone over a decade and what lies ahead.
I asked her in an interview a few days ago about the evolution of donors for the effort, which she is quick to explain isn't merely about feeding hungry children but "equally important, seeking to cultivate self sufficiency and to enable these children to finish school and break the poverty barrier."
"The teachers are passionate and committed, and the parents, though poor and largely unschooled themselves, express a strong desire to ensure the education of their children," Wallace said. "An indication of this is that over 95 percent of parents in all of Granger School District showed up for teacher conferences."
"We started out with a long list of donors, many with $50 to $100 donations," she said. "After a couple of years, I realized I could not handle the paperwork for all that, just at holiday season with all the other things clamoring for attention.
"So I narrowed the list to people who give more," she said. "Now, after 10 years we have about 30 committed donors, the largest being $6,000. We still have some $100 donors but I'm not focused on developing this level. Some always drop off for a year or stop altogether, so I need to keep cultivating new sources."
In addition to the money raised from friends, the Friends of Granger distributed grocery gift cards worth $100-150, depending upon the size of the family, with Fiesta Foods, the local Hispanic grocery, chipping in to provide holiday meal baskets at wholesale cost.
It wasn't long before the holiday-food focus expanded to provide a month-long summer camp for 125 children, as well as providing for the purchase of coats, hats, gloves and sometimes shoes for children coming to school inadequately dressed.
Because this little grass roots charity has no overhead, with all the clerical support and services donated, all the money goes to the families, augmented by items donated by local businesses, including backpacks from Costco.
Then other initiatives followed, including facilitating the provision of computers and software, underwriting a day camp facilitated by young professionals from Bellevue's First Presbyterian Church, and Ready for Kindergarten, which teaches moms how they can best prepare their children, starting at age 2, for kindergarten.
"While doing our best to take care of the immediate needs, we also believe it is equally important to cultivate self sufficiency and to enable these children to finish school and break the poverty barrier,."
And now there's an effort under way, guided by Wheaton who is now federal programs director at the Granger School District, to provide the community a splash park, which are springing up in communities that can't afford a pool.
Wheaton has indicated that the organization would commit $25,000 if the community would commit to providing the land, construction and the cost of maintenance. The city council is to consider the idea at a Dec. 10 meeting.
Wheaton signed the donor letter this year, and noted that Friends of Granger has raised more than $275,000 since it was formed.
Wallace says she would like to see the organization grow, but confesses she doesn't have the time or the energy, given all of her other commitments, to make that happen.
"When I started, I thought I'd be doing this for just a year or so," she confessed. "Then I thought when I retired I'd be able to turn it over to someone else, but that other 'someone' didn't appear."
When I quoted Wallace in a previous column, the most touching point for me related to providing for the clothing needs of the youngsters, because being a grandparent, I could picture the youngsters.
"A lot of kids are part of large families, so they come to school in hand-me-downs, jackets with the zippers not working, and no gloves," said Wallace. "If the teacher decides a kid is in need of a new coat, they're sent to the office and the secretary takes them down to the stock room where they get to pick out a new coat."
"There are 60 to 80 kids a year who wind up needing coats, so we have to buy them in all sizes, which we do at the end of a season and have them in stock for the next year," she added.
The Fund is reachable at:
Friends of Granger
C/o Joan Wallace, PO Box 4184, Bellevue, WA. 98009
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