Without volunteers, good Samaritans, human services landscape would be bleak

Heaven help you if you were trying to raise a child with a developmental disability in the 1960s. In terms of support services, education, therapy, or even a wise word, in many cities and towns there was nothing.

Heaven help you if you were trying to raise a child with a developmental disability in the 1960s. In terms of support services, education, therapy, or even a wise word, in many cities and towns there was nothing.

Which is why in 1966 a group of parents in the Snoqualmie Valley came together to form a preschool for children with special needs. The parents ran it themselves; there was no one else to do it. They believed that just because their children were different from many, they still had the right to an education, to care and attention. Moreover, struggling to understand disorders like autism, for example, meant that appropriate schooling and treatment early in life could make a huge difference in their child’s development.

The parents formed a network of volunteers – a PTSA of sorts. But because of the urgent need for just the kind of service they provided, the group expanded quickly. Thirty years later, they are known as Encompass, and are still one of the only places parents in this area can go to get help with raising their children.

In 2009, Encompass provided services for 4,291 individuals and families – 1,500 more than the previous year. Significantly, services for low to moderate income families increased by approximately 25 percent, and that number is expected to rise.

Issaquah Church and Community Services started out in 1985 when the pastors of several churches in the city got together to discuss the difficulty they were having serving all the needs of people in their communities who needed a helping hand. The task had grown beyond them.

So Issaquah Church and Community Services was formed with the support of local businesses, particularly the Issaquah Press, and to this day provides small sums of money for low income families who have fallen on hard times – gas vouchers, $100 to get the heat back on, a few dollars to help buy community college textbooks. Often, they are the very last resort for those people who come knocking with cap in hand.

“If you tell someone your child has cancer or diabetes, usually you are met with some sympathy. This isn’t always true when you say you have a child with a mental illness,” says Carol, who is a member of the volunteer board of NAMI Eastside, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people suffering from mental illnesses. She should know – as the mother of a young adult who has suffered from a mental illness since the age of 10, Carol has stood by through the suicide attempts, the misunderstanding, the stigma. NAMI is working on a shoestring budget to counter that misunderstanding and stigma with support and resources.

These three groups are just a few of the 70-odd Eastside human service providers asking the cities of Issaquah and Sammamish to help them continue to help others. And as generous as Issaquah and Sammamish have been in holding the line with their human services budgets, while cutting spending elsewhere, the need still exceeds the resources.

Watching the way in which the Issaquah Human Services Commission agonized over the expenditure of $3,150 for a consultant’s study the other night made me understand the tremendous importance of every one of their funding decisions. I am used to city meetings where councilors and staff talk about roads projects with sundry overrun allowances of tens of thousands of dollars. For most departments, $3,150 is barely worth the time it takes to discuss it.

But for groups like Issaquah Church and Community Services, who are responsible for making heart breaking decisions on whether they can grant $100 worth of financial assistance for a single mom needing a new tyre so she drive her child to daycare, 31 more $100 grants is an unimaginable luxury.

The people that run these groups are usually volunteers, and those that are salaried are paid a pittance in relationship to the value of their work.

It is that relationship – between what money we set aside for human services groups, and the value of those services – that is really difficult to justify.

I have written before about what just a fraction of a percent of the nation’s military budget would do for victims of domestic violence, children born with severe disabilities, women who have been raped, teenagers struggling with drug and alcohol abuse, kids who just need a little bit more help at school. And while it is an inequality that is hard to comprehend when you examine it, there is no sign that state or federal governments are interested in tipping the balance, if only a little.

Thank heavens then that there are so many Samaritans. Without them, it would be a dark age indeed.