Year after year, Joan Wallace emails “100 of her closest friends” around Thanksgiving time to ask them to give to children 163 miles east of Bellevue.
The children live in Granger, Washington – a small city in Yakima County with about 3,500 people. Approximately 78 percent of the community is Hispanic with 72 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch within the Yakima School District, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s 2017 data.
And each year, through her nonprofit Friends of Granger, Wallace, her sister-in-law Janet Wheaton and the many donors raise thousands of dollars to help out with family holiday dinners, providing coats for the children, a summer day camp and an attendance initiative.
Often, they give to families experiencing a crisis. This past summer, such a crisis arose when eight children were suddenly without clothing, their home and their parents after their father was arrested and charged with murdering their mother.
“Their home was now a crime scene and they were locked out,” the Bellevue resident said.
But, to provide some solace and stability, Friends of Granger purchased all eight children clothing, as they stayed with their grandfather.
Not all of their giving is quite so tragic, however. This year, the organization has a special goal.
Because students had quite a few snow make-up days in the summer, the day camp was cut short and Friends of Granger saved some money to put toward a spray park. With extremely hot summers, the community had been saving to build a pool for years and years. But pools are costly and require extensive maintenance. Instead, that money and funds raised from Friends of Granger will go toward a spray park, which is essentially a “tricked-up sprinkler system,” Wallace said. Their goal is to open the park by May.
This year will be the 14th year since Friends of Granger became a 501c3 nonprofit. Wallace got the idea to help the Granger community after she was sitting down to a nice Thanksgiving dinner at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel in Seattle. Wheaton, who was a principal at a Granger elementary school at the time, made a comment that she was worried some of her students would be going hungry over the Thanksgiving break.
Wallace said she tried to put the comment out of her mind in the days after but every time she walked by her Christmas tree and saw the gifts for her grandchildren piled under, she would think of the children in Granger.
With the help of her friend, an accountant, she was able to start her nonprofit the next holiday season in 2003. In the first year, they raised about $35,000. Since then, they’ve continually raised between $30,000 and $50,000 each year.
After a few years of fundraising, Wallace and Wheaton sat down to understand their primary purpose and identified four things to specifically raise money for. As other issues came up, they would champion them off to other nonprofits, Wallace explained.
They wanted to ensure the nonprofit ran very lean so that dollars raised went directly to the cause.
Now, Friends of Granger purchases two gift cards – $75 to a Hispanic grocery store and $75 to Walmart – for about 125 families. It’s done anonymously and the nonprofit works with a social worker in the schools to identify the families in need. Wallace said many of the families have between six to eight family members and $75 will buy about 100 pounds of rice and beans at Walmart.
“We leave a note that let’s them know God loves and cares for them and we put our P.O. Box address,” Wallace said.
Often, they receive heartfelt thank you notes.
In the summer, funds pay teachers and local community members to run a day camp for a month following the end of school.
“Many children live in old trailer houses,” Wallace said, adding that their parents often have to work long days.
In the mornings, there are educational games, online computer labs and lunch. In the afternoons, there are organized activities, such as soccer, musicals, crafts and plays.
In the fall, Friends of Granger buys about 30 coats to give to the schools. Then, if a teacher notices a child without a coat or one that has been worn a few too many times, the teacher will discreetly call the child into the principal’s office and let him or her pick out a new coat.
“These children are sometimes the fifth or sixth down the line to get a coat through a hand-me-down,” Wallace said. “They often have broken zippers …”
The Bellevue Presbyterian church also has a group of knitters who knit hats and mittens for the children. This year, they’ve knit about 40 sets.
Then, throughout the year, Friends of Granger has worked on a big push to turn the school district’s attendance of an all-time low to an all-time high. Through a grant reward of $15,000 from the Yakima Valley Community Foundation, students are provided incentives for attending school each day. The prizes, such as an iPad or new bike, increase in value if a student attends school for the entire year.
During the 2014-15 school year, the school district saw an increase in attendance by up to 22 percent, which is high compared to the 1 percent during the 2013-14 school year. That increase could also be seen in the comparison of 26 students with perfect attendance to the four who achieved it the previous year.
Friends of Granger continues to seek donations for these causes and more each Thanksgiving holiday and are always looking for new donors. And donating can be easy. This year, those who use Amazon Smile can select Friends of Granger as a charity to donate to.