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Bridge to Basics helps those in need find critical services
Listening to people tell their stories, that's a big part of what Erin Milliren and her 44 volunteers do in a United Way of King County program called Bridge to Basics.
And the story she hears most often among some of the state's 9 percent who are unemployed is that "It's bleak out there," she said.
Bridge to Basics runs in partnership with another outreach organization called Within Reach. Through it, volunteers provide assistance connecting people, including the unemployed, to resources to help them stay afloat.
Volunteers help people in need apply for food stamps, utilities assistance, pregnancy nutrition, free or low-cost children's health insurance, child- care subsidies and job training. On average they help to submit about 60 Basic Food applications a month.
In October, the Within Reach outreach staff, which consists of four AmeriCorps service members, two full-time employees and the Bridge to Basics volunteer team, spoke to a total of 1,022 community members. They submitted 89 Basic Food or food-stamp applications and made referrals to community assistance agencies and resources.
Milliren supervises three volunteers in the Renton area who frequent the city's Work Source center, one of their busiest sites for this work.
"There are a lot of Washington community members who are in crisis right now," she said.
A major part of her job is helping people understand that they aren't alone. Milliren has noticed that there are a lot of people in their 40s, 50s and 60s looking for jobs. A lot of people she's met with had high-paying jobs at companies like Boeing and Microsoft and are now feeling overwhelmed by their mortgage payments, she said.
They are also worried about their utilities being shut off and providing nutritious food for their children.
Milliren remembers encountering a 60-year-old mother who wasn't quite retirement age but was laid off. The woman was forced to live with her son, who was also unemployed and near the end of his unemployment assistance. Milliren was able to give the son information about low-cost health insurance and refer him to utilities assistance.
"Most people are really glad that there are these support systems that they can lean on," she said.
Among the college grads and about everyone else she meets without a job, Milliren said, there are definitely feelings of shame.
United Way noticed there weren't many volunteers doing public outreach offering benefits, said Courtney Noble, manager of Basic Need Programs at United Way of King County.
They knew that there were thousands of people who were eligible for food stamps, for example, but they didn't know who they were. The Bridge to Basics program is an attempt to send volunteers out cold to find people, she explained.
The program has now hit a tipping point in the number of agencies that are aware of their services. This has made it very easy to recruit volunteers, Noble said.
There are now more people ready and willing to help the program as volunteers than they have volunteer positions to fill. Recently they had 150 people who applied to volunteer when they had only 50 spots to fill. Volunteers receive a three- to four-hour training session and do outreach in food banks, libraries, community centers and Work Source sites. Some of them have a social work background or are retired professionals. The program currently needs volunteers who speak Spanish, Chinese or Russian.Milliren is bilingual in Spanish and English and has been working in the Bridge to Basics program since last September.
"I love people and I love that in this kind of work we have the opportunity to witness human strength and perseverance in really tough times," she said.
Despite her clients' unfortunate circumstances and the climate in which she works, Milliren is amazed by the fact that she has witnessed clients still make a point to wish each other happy holidays.
Volunteer registration for the next season of the Bridge to Basics program is now open and applications and information are available online.