Family Promise redefines ‘helping family’

 By Shane Richard Bell

Sometimes you never know who’s going to step into your life and be your family.

 

For some people in Coeur d’Alene, that family comes from Family Promise of North Idaho, a nonprofit organization committed to helping low-income families achieve lasting independence.

 

“We had no where to go and I was six and a half months pregnant,” says Jerre Lewis, a graduate of Family Promise of North Idaho. “I wanted to sleep in my car but my husband wouldn’t let me.”

 

Fortunately, a pregnant woman and her husband did not have to succumb to living on the streets or in their car. “We called Family Promise and got in two days later,” says Lewis. “Without Family Promise, we have no idea where we would have been. We would have been sleeping in our car. ”

 

Last Friday, Oct. 14, volunteers and supporters of Family Promise alike wanted to relate to the homeless by sleeping outside in the cold, with nothing but a box and a sleeping bag. Setting up their “Box City” outside the Community United Methodist Church in Coeur d’Alene, about 40 participants enjoyed food, drinks, music and personal testimonies. Looking at families huddled together around fires in the rain at Box City was reminiscent of a Hooverville- shantytowns built by homeless people during the Great Depression.

 

“We keep families together,” says Cindy Wood, director of Family Promise of North Idaho, “which the traditional model doesn’t.” “We are faith in action,” she added. “We believe you show people your faith by helping.”

 

As a hospitality service, Family Promise provides a home to at-risk families for up to six months, two to three meals a day, and a day center, where guests are equipped to further their skills, training and employment.

 

A few months ago, however, Family Promise of North Idaho had to cease assisting families because of a lagging economy and insufficient funding. It’s open again, and the plan is to help families obtain housing before this winter.

 

“But we need more funding,” Wood said. “We really need the community to embrace us and support us financially.”

 

When at-risk families remain together, the family’s whole dynamic and direction for the future change. “We’re making little steps toward success,” says Jerre Lewis.

 

Michael and Jerre Lewis graduated from the Family Promise program on May 17. Their newest addition to their family, Maddex, was born on the same day. At the Box City event, the Lewis family shared their story of near homelessness and being torn apart as a family to entering Family Promise with a staff that was “like a huge family with giant arms.”

 

Michael Lewis proudly remembers moving into their first home as a family. “Getting the house set up felt amazing. I couldn’t ask for anything better,” Lewis said. “It’s a blessing from God: people who like to help other people.”

 

To donate to Family Promise of North Idaho, please visit www.familypromiseni.org or send donations to Family Promise of North Idaho at P.O. Box 3682, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, 83816

 

 

-published in Cda Press on Saturday, October 22, 2011

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Gratitude Makes Heroes (published in the Coeur d’Alene Press)

Thousands of people scrambled to get inside, but even more struggled to find a safe place outside. Torrential rain pounded the walls, flooding swallowed streets and neighborhoods whole. Almost 10,000 people without homes had gathered there during the night. By morning, the reality of survival had surfaced with supplies of cots and MREs (meals ready to eat). Inadequate sanitation, medical help, and water made the situation unbearable inside the Superdome. I was just getting ready to begin another year of high school, and like most Americans, watched the news in a daze, not comprehending the severity of the disaster nor the ensuing implications. It was late August, 2005, and Hurricane Katrina- one of America’s most costly disasters- had just hit New Orleans. The situation was so dire, hope seemed to be anywhere but there.

Now fast forward to the same place one year later. New Orleans’ Superdome had just reopened, and this time, thousands of people gathered to watch their team play their arch rival, the Houston Texans. But it was not just any football game, in fact, it turned out to be one of the New Orleans Saints’ most dramatic victories when former player Steve Gleason blocked a punt that not only won the game but sent thousands out of their seats in thunderous applause. The moment struck home here, too. As a Spokane native, Steve Gleason started out playing football at Gonzaga Preparatory School, then went on to play for the Washington Cougars, and eventually and most notably, the NFL for the Colts and Saints. Our own hero became so many others’ hero as well.

“Infinite joy” is how Steve Gleason described it. It was the return of the Saints, part of the road to recovery for New Orleans, and the rise of Gleason as a folk hero. It was the moment of hope everyone so desperately needed. Hope was back.

Now it’s September 25, 2011, five years later, and the Saints are about to play Houston again. Limping, Steve Gleason, the folk hero, heads to the center of the field, his hand rests on quarterback Drew Brees’ shoulder. The coin is tossed, and honorary captain and retired player, Gleason, wearing his jersey, number 37, holds his left fist to the crowd. His right arm dangles, limp.

The crowd rises and gives him a standing ovation, even louder than the come-back game in 2006 following Hurricane Katrina. It was “probably the loudest I’ve ever heard any stadium– ever,” said Coach Sean Payton in an Associated Press article. As an eight-year NFL special teams leader, Gleason had just announced his diagnosis of ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), a debilitating and ultimately fatal disease for which there currently is no cure.

Whether on or off the field, Gleason is still the Saints’ fans greatest hero. “I see this as an opportunity to continue to be an inspiration,” says Gleason to the Associated Press, “maybe even more so than I ever have been.” For him, ALS is not the end, but rather the beginning of another stage in his life. People know gratitude in practice, and when they see someone giving, they’ll reciprocate. Gratitude is receiving and giving, which is something Gleason personally lives out. Gleason is starting a new organization called Team Gleason, which aims to improve the lives of those who have ALS, the symptoms of which include gradual paralysis.

“You have to continue to do things you love,” said Gleason, Associated Press. “You have to engage in passionate, remarkable human relationships, which have always been important to me.” Gleason reminds us to possess gratitude in all areas of life- relationships, jobs, faith communities and hobbies.

Even though people generally live three to five years with ALS, Gleason is not viewing his life as an hour glass. Last year, he and his wife, Michel, saw fertility specialists, with the idea of having their first baby. The same year he contemplated finishing an MBA grad program. A year later, both dreams have come true. Gleason completed grad school, and they’re expecting their first child in October.

There was a moment when I realized Gleason’s story has value for every human being. My dad and I were discussing his story, a time line of poignant highs and lows, as tears ran down my dad’s face and my heart began to beat, faster and faster. It was the feeling I get when I know I’m suppose to pause in life, and learn something deep. I believe Gleason is alive and will continue to live out the rest of his life because of gratitude. He treats gratitude as both feeling and action. Like Gleason, gratitude can be quiet, meek and internal, but it can also be boisterous, passionate and fiercely life-changing. In the end, it is gratitude that brings about change through belief, and like Gleason, there is power behind belief.

Will Idaho Finish Last?

 

She turned and walked away, with no where to go. There apparently wasn’t enough room, and she had not said the qualifying and final words required to get in. Up and down her arms were cuts, intentional and deep, bearing the need for both medical and psychiatric attention.

 

Her story is a true story, though anonymous, of a woman seeking psychiatric help here in Coeur d’Alene at Kootenai Medical Center but not receiving it because of a lack of resources and red tape, says Rob Wheeler, owner of Eagle Crest Life Services, a mental health service provider in Coeur d’Alene. It’s hard to imagine such a desperate call for help going unanswered, but unfortunately her story is one among many, and signifies a critical issue in our community and state.

 

With an unpredictable economy and rising unemployment, funding for mental health services has significantly decreased in Idaho, leading to what some professionals say, is a ‘mental health crisis.’ Between 2009 and 2011, 5.3 million dollars was shaved off Idaho’s mental health expenditures budget (13th largest state deduction in the nation). But Idaho is not alone. According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, between 2009 and 2011 states cumulatively cut 1.8 billion dollars from their budgets for services for children and adults living with mental illness. “You have to threaten to pull the trigger to be admitted,” says Wheeler. “If they admitted everyone who came through their doors, it would require 200 more beds.” Less financial or public support for those who suffer from mental illness does not mean less people are suffering from mental illness, it means more people will be undiagnosed, untreated, and unmedicated.

 

In an attempt to reign in spending and balance the budget, the Idaho Legislature is slowly overhauling some of the most vital mental health services to some of the most vulnerable community members. For Eagle Crest Life Services, they’re still operating on resources from 1995, and thus haven’t received a significant rate increase in over a decade. Eagle Crest Life Services, which aims to reintegrate patients into society, has seen their patient service hours decrease from 20 hours to 4 hours per week, regardless of the patient’s symptoms or needs. “To try to save money, we’re going to end up spending more money in the long run,” says Wheeler. “These groups of people will get their needs met somehow- either through emergency rooms, jails or state mental hospitals, which are a lot more expensive than [psychosocial rehabilitation services].”

 

The greater implications of not helping the mentally ill are profound. On the front page of Sunday’s, September 18, 2011, Coeur d’Alene Press, is a disturbing article on suicide in Idaho. According to the article, “Idaho has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation, the suicide rate in the state’s northern counties is even higher, and it has been going up steadily in recent years.” Idaho’s suicide rate is double the nation’s rate, and is even up from 2008. In 2009, 307 suicides took place in Idaho, 52 of which were in the state’s five northern counties. In the last year, four students from the Coeur d’Alene School District have committed suicide. Four teenagers. They had barely begun life. If we don’t provide more mental health services, an increase in incarcerations, hospitalizations, homelessness and suicide will continue.

 

As someone who has a close family member dealing with mental illness, I can you assure how accurate these statistics, quotes and stories really are. They represent loved ones, neighbors, co-workers and friends- some of whom you might not even know battle a mental illness. Receiving support made all the difference in my family member’s recovery and rehabilitation. Mental illness not only affects individuals, but families, as well as our whole community. We cannot afford to compromise on an individual’s health and well-being, and if we do, we jeopardize our civil obligation and the dignity of our own humanity.

How “Circus Freaks” Are Not History

As someone who grew up in Coeur d’Alene, going to the fair at the end of every summer was a part of my upbringing, a tradition of fun and local culture. As a kid, it’s all about the rides, games, and overly stuffed animals. As a teenager, it’s about who’s dating who, your cell phone, and riding the romantic Ferris Wheel. As an adult, one enjoys, the music, the greasy food, animals, and perhaps even a Hypnotist. There’s something for everyone at the fair.

But this year I saw something that I could hardly believe was reality.

Upon arriving to the fair this last Friday, a friend immediately told me of an attraction featuring the “World’s Smallest Woman.” I told her it was a hoax, an illusion among many at the fair. But it wasn’t, I was dead wrong. Never in my mind did I think in the year 2011, it could be true. I thought humans being exploited as “circus freaks” (I use it, although I dislike the term), was something that happened decades, if not a century ago, when John Merrick, better known as the “Elephant Man,” was put on display in London as nothing but a “freak of nature,” as someone to be mocked, poked and prodded.

But John Merrick was rescued from his dark world in the circus and given a home. His story had a happy ending. As for Linda, “the World’s Smallest Woman,” put on display at our own Coeur d’Alene fair, I am not sure.

I understand curiosity, but not at the expense of a human’s quality of life. I walked by the booth, but did not go in. Instead, I stood there, frozen in disbelief, as people excitedly paid their .75 cents to see the “World’s Smallest Woman.” A loudspeaker announced the attraction: “She’s Haitian, only 29” tall.” On the outside, a sign read ‘10,000 Reward if not alive.’

I was appalled, and furious at this mistreatment. No one could see or hear her from outside the booth; her presence was merely made known by the huge grins and bursts of laughter as people circled her as if she were an animal at the zoo. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing.

People murmured, “She’s black, fat, and this tall,” as they gestured her height with their hands. What people didn’t see was this woman’s bleak future, humiliation and complete lack of opportunity.

Our own Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations says:”We oppose the discrimination of anyone based upon race, color, ethnic origin or disability.”

I voiced my complaint to the managers of Midland Co, but they told me she had a job. As I walked away, I could see them laughing hysterically at me in their office. If you can believe, according to manager Billy Thomas of Midland Co., that Linda lives in an air-conditioned home in Haiti, than you can also believe she is satisfied with her life.

How could we, as a nation that believes in human dignity and liberty above all things, treat a disenfranchised woman so horribly? Is this what we want to show our children or tell those to whom the Civil Rights Movement is a vivid memory? Do you for the sake of curiosity wish to support Midland Co., which travels around the nation, exploiting humans like Linda?

We can change this from happening in the future. The answer is we must stop companies from treating people like this by refusing to support them as consumers. I urge all the citizens of Kootenai County, the Kootenai County Fair Board, and our Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations to put an end to supporting such human cruelty. Every person matters, no matter how society views them.

About the author

I am Shane Richard Bell.

I am a staff writer and photographer for the Cd’A Press.

I am a community journalist with dreams of reaching the world one person at a time.

My blog, http://www.everypersonmatters.wordpress.com, is based on this belief. My writings are meant to unearth, enlighten, and inspire. They’re alive, written with all of the love and passion I can offer the world.

My hope is that you read these multidimensional articles, from sports to industry to fashion and family, and find something of great meaning to you.