Once again, the holiday season offers the chance to spotlight people in the community whose good works, creativity and generosity enhance the lives of friends and strangers.
Here are three you should know about.
TINY VILLAGE, BIG FANS
The Christmas display, a multitiered village complete with picturesque houses, a merry-go-round, ice skaters on a tiny pond and a sparkly blue river, has become a beloved tradition at Dogwood Plaza, a Section 8 apartment house for around 50 low-income seniors. Look closely at the display and you’ll see carriages and horses, shops, Lilliputian cottages and more, all laid out on a blanket of cottony white.
“Residents love it,” said Sue Anderson, Dogwood Plaza manager. They start asking about the display and whether it will be back as early as Thanksgiving. Wendy Young, whose mother-in-law, Jesse Black, lives at the complex, has created the village display each Christmas for the past three years.
“Wendy has kind of adopted us,” said Anderson. “She gives her own time and her own money to create the display. One night she was here until 4 a.m. setting it up.”
Young, a cosmetologist, has spent a lot of time at Dogwood. Besides creating the Christmas display, she cuts and styles residents’ hair. She’s worked as a home health aid for residents.
“They’re a wonderful group of people. It’s like a little family. I was nominated an honorary member of the housing group a couple years ago because I was there so often,” said Young.
Look closely at the Dogwood Plaza Christmas display and you’ll see some oddities and proof that Wendy Young has a sense of humor: a moose biting Santa’s nose, a fireman carrying a large raccoon and more.
Her mother-in-law inspired the display. Black had started collecting houses some years ago. Young asked Anderson about setting up the houses in the foyer for all the residents and visitors to see. Anderson agreed.
Young took it on as an artistic project. She started visiting Goodwill and Savers in search of more little houses. Her own mother and a few of her clients donated more to the collection. She’s also received a few anonymous donations from people who appreciate her efforts.
Young adds features to the display each Christmas. This year, she has added a scavenger hunt of oddities and challenged residents to find all 10: a fireman carrying a large raccoon, an upside-down fence, a boy in short sleeves giving his dog a bath in the dead of winter, a drunk man talking to a pole.
Her love of Christmas and humor extends to her own house. She has three Christmas trees. She found clothes at a thrift store and stuffed them to resemble a human figure. She positioned the figure on her roof to look like a hapless guy who had slipped while installing his Christmas lights, laying a ladder on the ground beneath him.
“I have had a couple people slow down when they saw that,” said Young.
She didn’t want to scare people too much. “I left the pants unstuffed so you can see there’s really no one in the pants,” she said.
Young “gets a kick out of the residents” at Dogwood Plaza, she said. Some of the women who live there told her they like to sit together in the evenings near the Christmas display and discuss which tiny houses they would choose to live in.
“That’s the whole reason I do it. Because they like it,” said Young.
ONCE IN NEED, NOW GIVING BACK
Serena Croft is in a good place now, with a new sewing business and a healthy family. This was not always the case. About three years ago, she and her husband, Jerod, were both employed, she in the accounting field, her husband in the military. They had health insurance, but Serena’s complicated pregnancy and the series of surgeries that followed for her baby daughter, AnnAllyse, left the family struggling to pay their bills.
The Crofts, who live in Boise, applied for WIC and food stamps. They found themselves in a limbo zone of making too much money to qualify for help, but making little enough that they had to weigh whether to pay their electric bill or buy food. A nurse in the hospital where AnnAllyse was undergoing surgery saw Croft’s distress and offered to make some calls. The calls included one to The Idaho Foodbank.
As luck would have it, the organization had just gotten a donation of the costly infant formula AnnAllyse needed. The Foodbank held the formula for Croft until she was able to leave the hospital.
“I had an idea in my mind that the Foodbank was just for homeless people. I don’t want to sound judgmental, but I thought it would be a dreary, grungy place and that we would be treated badly,” said Croft.
Staffers at the Foodbank welcomed her with kindness. They helped the family get food and formula, donated diapers for AnnAllyse and clothes for her older brother, Isaac.
“The Foodbank became a huge stepping stone for us,” said Croft.
The news that Jerod was being deployed to the Afghanistan border with the Idaho Army National Guard was traumatic, but it also meant better pay and full medical benefits. The family slowly, steadily got back on solid ground. But that didn’t mean Serena forgot the help they received.
Sometimes, a family needs to ask for help. But that’s not the end of the story. Serena Croft and her family know better.
“It became important for me to raise awareness that there are families like mine that are gainfully employed, with health insurance. We own our own home, our own cars, but had life events that really knocked us down,” said Croft.
She became a vocal advocate for the Foodbank, sharing her story at events like Picnic in the Park, the summer food program for families, and the Chefs’ Affaire annual fundraiser.
Having someone like Croft who is willing to speak honestly about her struggles is rare and valuable, said Mike Sharp, Foodbank spokesman.
“She has helped give a face to an issue that a lot of people don’t really want to think about,” he said. “The second part of that is that she’s on the other side now. A story like hers enables us to show other people what can happen when you’re willing to ask for help. That your situation is temporary.”
Now Croft has found another way to benefit others while using the seamstress talents she learned from her grandmother. She’s working with One Church One Child, a partnership between the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and the faith community. She makes comfort kits for children who have been removed from their homes because of abuse, neglect or other issues. After hearing that some kids in this situation have to carry their belongings in trash bags for lack of something better, she decided that was not acceptable.
She works in her home studio, a former dining room stacked with fabric — My Little Pony, Thomas the Tank Engine, flowers and stars. She makes pillowcases, blankets, hooded towels, tote bags and more, each bright item destined for a child in crisis. She then raises money to fill the tote bags with art supplies, books, socks and hygiene items.
“Anybody who knows what I do knows that every piece I make is unique. I don’t know the kids I help, but I think of my own kids. And they help me pick out fabric that other kids would like,” said Croft. “It’s an amazing feeling to be able to help this way.”
To learn more about Croft’s project and ways to get involved or make a donation, visit her Facebook page, Sew Joyful Creations, check out her fundraising campaign online or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
COLLABORATION AND A STREAM OF BOOKS
The efforts of a Boise teacher, a group of devoted volunteers and generous donors are making it possible for hundreds of local kids to have good books to read.
Megan Jones teaches English as a second language at Jefferson Elementary. Her crusade for kids and books began five years ago when she taught at Lowell Elementary and worked with United Way’s junior service program and several Lowell students to build Little Free Libraries for the community. The national Little Free Library program encourages people to build tiny libraries — sometimes no bigger than a kitchen cabinet — then fill them with books that people can borrow for free.
Jones got Little Libraries built at Koelsch and Taft, as well as Lowell, and then had the challenge of keeping them stocked with books. Luckily, she connected with Book it Forward! Idaho, a volunteer-run initiative of Idaho Voices for Children and The Cabin. Book it Forward! collects “gently used books,” cleans and sorts them, and gets them out into the community through a number of channels, including school districts, medical clinics, youth clubs, and now through Megan Jones and the Little Libraries.
It takes a city to raise a reader. Luckily, young readers in Boise have lots of book-lovers looking out for them.
Book it Forward! Idaho has a grant to build between 10 and 14 more Little Libraries in Boise. Jones, as a teacher long interested in literacy, has contacts in schools and in the community to know where those libraries should be installed to reach the greatest number of kids in need.
“We started out giving Megan 50 books a month. Now we’re looking at giving her 1,000 books during the school year to stock the Little Libraries,” said Diane Schwarz, a Book it Forward! Idaho volunteer.
Jones said she wants to spread the effort into surrounding communities, build after-school literacy programs and collect more bilingual books to distribute.
Book it Forward! Idaho
The organization needs volunteers to help clean and sort books. Call Diane Schwarz at 208-949-0682.
Book it Forward! Idaho has drop boxes across the city, including at the Downtown Family YMCA, The Cabin and Roosevelt Elementary in Boise, where books may be donated.
Donate to Megan Jones/Little Libraries through the Boise Public Schools Education Foundation (you can specify online where you want your donation to go).
Another idea from Jones: Organize a reading circle. Have your friends come for tea with a book they want to donate to Book it Forward! Idaho or Little Free Libraries. Have everyone write a letter to tuck inside the book for a child to find.