Baltimore resident Dawn Lewis found herself on a roller coaster of worry, need and despair about a year and a half ago.
Unemployed and on disability at age 48, she was struggling to care for the nine grandchildren she had taken in almost two years before. The children had been removed from her eldest daughter’s care by Maryland’s Department of Social Services, and when she took them in, Lewis said she “knew at the start that God would provide.”
With little to spare, however — Lewis also had a daughter, then age 21, and a son, then age 13, both at home — every day seemed an exhausting struggle to provide for her lively and close-knit brood.
“The one-to-one model works, for those we serve and for our mission,” said Pam Koner.
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Taking on nine kids at once is not for the faint of heart.
“I stepped out on faith when I decided to do it,” said Lewis about taking in her grandchildren, today ages 16 to 2. “They’re my family, my babies. I love them.” But keeping young mouths fed and growing bodies clothed was not easy.
Fortunately, an answer was not far off. And it did not involve a pricey new government program or higher taxes for anyone. It was about people, about good Americans stepping in to help each other.
More than 500 miles away in Florence, Kentucky, wife and mother Shelly Simon, 56, was busy raising her daughter Sarah, then 12, in the early summer of 2014. She has three other children as well, all grown, and six grandchildren.
One June morning Simon received an email from Family to Family, a nonprofit giving organization based in New York. The message mentioned Lewis, her dire situation — and all the grandbabies she had taken in. The question before her was: Who could help this family?
“Immediately I felt God say to me, with power and certainty, ‘That’s you. You are to sponsor this family,’” Simon recalled.
“I didn’t even check with my husband, the feeling was so strong,” she added, laughing. “It was a very personal, very immediate calling. When God says ‘Do something,’ I do it. You don’t say no to God.”
“I felt God say to me, with certainty, ‘That’s you. You are to sponsor this family,'” said Shelly Simon.
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Two women, complete strangers and separated by hundreds of miles, today have developed a unique bond, strengthened by handwritten letters in which they share the news of their lives with one another.
Simon recalled getting to know the children through long, carefully written letters by Lewis – woman-to-woman missives of hope, joys, frustrations, and sometimes, despair.
‘Under No Obligation’
The Simon family jumped into action after the initial email and never looked back. They provide monthly gift cards to the Lewis family to help with food and necessities, and each child in the household — Lewis’s nine grandkids plus her daughter and son — receive a birthday box delivered on their special day.
At Christmas, each Lewis child also receives a brand new pair of pajamas.
Lewis reciprocates, although she’s under no obligation to do so.
“As tight as things are, Dawn always manages to mail me a bookmark, a word of encouragement, or a Bible verse,” said Simon. “She sent my daughter Sarah a gift for her birthday, and little gifts for my husband and me, too.”
The person who facilitated this special bond is a New York woman named Pam Koner, who had a sudden “call to action” moment of her own 13 years ago. Like Lewis and Simon, she followed it without hesitation.
“Something I can’t explain moved me in that moment to act,” said Koner.
“I was going about, happily living my own life, when I happened to read an article in the New York Times about the profoundly poor population in Pembroke, Illinois — desperately poor,” said Koner, who lives in Westchester, New York.
“I wasn’t a spiritual person before, but I am now,” she told LifeZette. “Something I can’t explain moved me in that moment to act.”
An entrepreneur and mother of two daughters now in their 20s, Koner began contacting the principal players in the article.
She connected with an outreach worker in Pembroke with a simple idea: linking families she knew personally who had “more” to give, with families who had “less” and were experiencing hunger and poverty. She received the names of 17 of the neediest Pembroke families.
“I got 16 friends and neighbors to join me in this quest, and they each began sending monthly boxes of food, as well as writing personal letters to the Pembroke families, one-to-one — one family with more, to one family with less. Then 17 families grew to 60.”
A year later Koner’s national non-profit organization, Family to Family, was born.
“There are multiple pockets of hunger in America, as well as profound poverty in the rural areas,” said Koner. “We get calls from people who are literally not able to feed their family through the end of the week, and the demands are ever-growing.”
In 2014, some 48 million Americans lived in food insecure households, including 32.8 million adults and 15.3 million children, according to FeedingAmerica.org. Broken out by household, some 14 percent of U.S. households, or 17.4 million, were food insecure last year. The instances are higher when children are part of the household.
‘We Can Literally Change Lives’
Over the years, Family to Family has grown into a constellation of unique programs beyond its flagship program, “Sponsor A Family,” in which giving families shop and ship their own boxes to their designated family. Koner estimates that 2,100 people currently are being helped by her Sponsor A Family program.
“There is an option for anyone, no matter their budget, to become involved with Family to Family,” Koner said. “We offer a lot of ways to make a difference, to literally change lives.”
Children give to the less fortunate, using books as the centerpiece of the program.
Family to Family is now serving 27 communities in 18 states in the U.S. through a range of targeted efforts, everything from a childhood literacy program called “One Book at a Time,” to the uber-local “Doorknob Dinner Project,” which allows neighbors to help their neighbors in need.
Children can learn empathy by participating in Family to Family “The Giving Works! Empathy Project,” where children give to less fortunate children, with books as the centerpiece of the program.
“We link with multiple organizations — schools, church groups, and service organizations — who can be accountable agents in the process, such as the Boys and Girls Club of Baltimore in Dawn Lewis’s case. They alerted us to her needs,” she said. “They help us vet the families, get packages delivered, and make sure our process runs efficiently and effectively.”
Lewis’s voice filled with emotion at the mention of her sponsor Shelly Simon’s name.
“I love her,” she said softly. “She’s a heaven-sent angel, and so is Family to Family. Lifesaver is a good word to use — I can’t explain all they’ve done for me.” She paused. “I’m a poor woman. And this program is a lifesaver.”
Simon has strong feelings for Lewis, too, and Family to Family.
“I was a single mother once, with my first three children,” Simon told LifeZette, her voice softening with reflection — so she knows about struggle. “After their father and I divorced, I was raising three kids alone, and not making it with my job as a hairdresser.”
She added, “My pastor came in to work one day and sat in my chair and finally convinced me to go to the food pantry at church, and I felt so … defeated. I understand that feeling of defeat. So God literally compelled me to reach out to Dawn through Family to Family.”
“I believe in the power of ‘one,’” said Koner, reflecting on what has made her program work so well in assisting the profoundly poor. “The one-to-one model works, for those we serve, and for our mission.”
With her three oldest raised and out of the house, Simon involves her youngest, Sarah, whom she home-schools, in the experience of giving.
“Sarah is very active in this,” she said. “She helps me pick out the Christmas pajamas for Dawn’s family, she goes to get the gift cards with me, and she chooses items for the birthday boxes.”
Added Simon, “We are not teaching our children to give on the whole in this country. Sarah understands the special joy of truly helping another through this work.”
Still, it’s the personal one-on-one connection that means the most to both giver and receiver.
“I love getting cake and presents on my birthday,” said Lewis’s 8-year-old grandson Raheemah. “It’s the best.”
For Lewis, it’s simple.
“After the last of these children move away, I will still have Shelly. She is my friend, my sister – my angel.”
At this time of year, this is especially relevant.
“It’s so important during the holiday season to remember what giving is all about,” said Koner. “We really believe at Family to Family that giving of ourselves is the best kind of giving we can do.”