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First-ever grant makes this a special year for Hispanic-families focused Friends or Granger

What was born 11 years ago out of a Thanksgiving Day conversation in the small town of Granger between two women concerned that the children there, mostly Hispanic and poverty-level, would go hungry over the Christmas holidays has grown into an effort to also feed the minds of not just the youngsters, but also their families.

This year is a special one for the little non-profit called Friends of Granger, that grew out of that 2003 Thanksgiving conversation between Joan Wallace, then president of Wallace Properties in Bellevue, and her sister in law, Janet Wheaton, then principal of Granger High School in a community that U.S. Census figures indicate is 85 percent Hispanic.  


The specialness is that this year has brought a new and growing relationship with nearby Heritage University and its largely Hispanic student body, as well as the remarkable results of the energy and creativity of Heritage student Alma Sanchez that have brought the tiny non-profit its first grant.


Thus is many respects, this is the most important year since the tiny 501c3 was founded to focus on providing Christmas baskets to the mostly Hispanic families. It subsequently grew to not just feed but also enrich the children with programs ranging from providing warm clothing and school supplies to creation of a month-long summer day camp. In addition, an emergency fund was established to help families in crisis.


In her annual e-mail report and "ask" to "friends" last week, Wallace noted that the little non-profit had received a $15,000 grant from the Yakima Valley Community Foundation (YVCF), due mainly to the involvement of Sanchez, a mother of four who is both a student and an employee at Heritage.

The grant is for the education-focused program Sanchez created to use incentives to keep kids in school. Sanchez, who in addition to being a Heritage student also works in the office of Michael Moore, Heritage's Vice President for University Advancement. It was Moore who first reached out to Wallace to create ties between the university and her programs.

Sanchez' attendance incentive program, promoted with posters visible around the school, attracts attention with the headline "Win One of 5 IPads," with the explanation that five will be raffled at the end of the year. Plus, in a style worthy of an ad agency, the signs read: "every quarter that you are in school every day you will receive fabulous prizes."

The results of Sanchez' efforts are already paying dramatic dividends since the 400-student middle school that last year had six students with perfect attendance already has 100 kids with perfect attendance this year.

Moore explains that Sanchez "has also worked inside the school to create a belief among faculty and staff that full attendance is possible and put encouragement, support and incentives in place for students."

Now Sanchez' program can be expanded as a result of the grant from YVCF, which held a special luncheon last week where Wheaton, now Director of Federal Programs, Assessment, Curriculum & Technology for the Granger School District, received the grant check from Linda Moore, the community foundation president.

Sanchez, whose children range from a 20 year old down to a third grader, decided four years ago she needed to get her degree and so, in her mid-30s, enrolled at Heritage. In her sophomore year she went to work in Moore's office because she needed money to finish school.

She had nurtured the goal of going to college, originally hoping to be an attorney, since growing up in Chicago, the city which has perhaps the largest urban Mexican-American population in the country. She moved her family to Granger when her husband relocated to the Yakima Valley.

After learning about Friends of Granger, she got involved, did some research and learned that lack of attendance was the major problem in the Granger schools.

She says she researched attendance across the country and explored what different schools were doing to address the problem and found what kinds of incentive programs to keep kids in school were working in other districts, then came up with her plan for Granger schools, but needed the funding to implement her ideas. That led to the application for the grant.

Sanchez has also helped put together a series of financial literacy workshops for the Granger families and the first one, last week, exceeded all expectations as at least 500 people, representing 150 different families, showed up.

Here again incentives came into play as each family picked up food baskets, then stayed to listen to the presenters.

"When the grant got approved, I can't tell you how ecstatic I was," Sanchez said. "What I would like to see is for this program to continue because I am confident if it continues that we will see significant increases in attendance, and that thus more students will graduate and more students will go on to college."

She also shared her vision that the project "could become the protocol for other districts elsewhere that are facing attendance problems."


Meanwhile, the Heritage connection will be ratcheted up next year when18 student teachers will be working in Granger with master teachers from the School District for the entire year, five days a week in a program viewed as a national model for how teachers need to be trained.   


The vision for the Heritage program is that by teaching with master teachers in some of the most challenging districts in the state, Heritage-trained teachers emerge with skills and experience no other programs can produce while also substantially moving the needle on performance for the schools and classrooms they touch.


Granger will appropriately be the initial beneficiary of this program.

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Joan Wallace's decade-long commitment to tiny non-profit to help poor kids in Granger

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.


Joan Wallace

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.

Janet Wheaton

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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Tiny charity has large impact on lives of kids, families in small Yakima Valley town

When Joan Wallace reflects on her decision on a Thanksgiving nine years ago to create a grassroots charity to address the needs of the mostly poverty-level Hispanic families in a small Yakima Valley community, she says "it seemed like pie in the sky."


In fact, the manner in which the organization Wallace created, Friends of Granger, has done its annual fund raising through a single e-mail she sends each Thanksgiving week to friends and family might seem to some like an annual revisiting of that description.


"How else than that description to explain the expectation that a small group of caring individuals could adopt an entire village and make a difference in the lives of needy children - not just for today, but for their future," mused Wallace, principal and retired president of Bellevue-based Wallace Properties.


But the on-going impact Friends of Granger has on the community, which U.S. Census figures indicate is 85 percent Hispanic or Latino, suggests that the charity Wallace launched with her sister in law, Janet Wheaton, on Thanksgiving Day of 2003 has indeed made a difference.


Wheaton was then principal at Granger high school but is now federal programs director of the Granger School District, where she told me she now has "the privilege of serving all the families of our school district and community."


More than 300 people receive Wallace's e-mail each year, an outreach that represents the only source of fund-raising for the non-profit's tiny $50,000 annual budget, a fund-raising effort that Wallace concedes usually raises closer to $35,000.


But because the little 501c3 that was incorporated in early 2004 has no overhead, with all the clerical support and services donated, all the money goes to the families, touching as many as 150 families in the Granger community.


"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," notes Wallace, now president of the 501c3 while Wheaton is treasurer. "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 adds.


The incentive during the conversation that first year between Wallace and Wheaton was a concern that without some assistance, children in dozens of families (social workers later identified the number as 160 families) would be going hungry without the two subsidized meals they had each day.


The $100 grocery gift cards that were purchased from Fiesta Foods, the local Hispanic grocery, which chipped in by providing holiday meal baskets at wholesale cost, were sent anonymously to the families of the poorest children.


But Because Wallace has difficulty thinking small, what was born that Christmas season as a food gift soon grew into programs throughout the year to not just feed and clothe but to enrich those poorest kids.


Thus came discounted purchase of book bags from Costco, a month long summer day camp, and Ready! For Kindergarten, focusing on early learning and parenting skills. Then the annual purchase of coats and mittens, which Wheaton oversees.


The ask each year is composed fresh from the heart rather than recycled and this year's details what the donated dollars achieve, noting that Wheaton has identified "150 families that will need our help this year. Our objective is to allocate $125.00 per family."


Though one year she closed with a quote from Mother Theresa ("We cannot all do great things, but we can all do small things with great love"), the ask is generally a soft one, like this year's: "If you could see your way clear to support Friends of Granger with a gift this year it would be wonderful."


The Fund is reachable at:

Friends of Granger

C/o Joan Wallace, PO Box 4184, Bellevue, WA. 98009



Happy Thanksgiving!

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