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Inside Caring For Kids: A Mission to Help Needy Children Survive, Thrive

The organization that got its unofficial start in 1971 has become essential in providing local students with clothing, school supplies -- and support.

(Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series on Caring For Kids, the nonprofit that serves needy students in Lakewood, Steilacoom and University Place)

It’s a sure sign that a Caring For Kids event was successful when Diane Formoso doesn’t have much to say. No complaints, no stress – just quiet satisfaction.

“It went great,” she said of Saturday’s Ready to Learn Fair at Lochburn Middle School.

This year, the fair, which, along with two other upcoming events, distributes school supplies and clothing to more than 3,000 needy students in the Clover Park, Steilacoom and University Place School Districts, started at 8 a.m. and was done by noon. In 2011, the line was still out the door of Lochburn’s cafeteria by 2 p.m.

So Formoso, a former school-bus driver, and her team of helpers made some modifications this year.

“We had a double line going for school supplies and got everyone in and out quickly,” she said.

After all, Caring For Kids is the kind of organization that is willing to evolve – sometimes at a moment’s notice – in keeping with its mission to, well, care for kids.

Kids who are homeless. Kids who are hungry. Kids who have next to nothing.

~ A mission is born ~

The organization officially began in 1991, but its roots go back 20 years earlier, when a kindergartener boarded Formoso’s bus one morning wearing his mother’s high-heeled boots because he had no shoes of his own.

Since then, she has been committed to making sure that no child goes without shoes, a coat or anything else they need to survive.

“Things are scary for these kids,” she said.

During just one week last spring, Formoso distributed 77 pairs of sneakers at eight CPSD schools. Almost every day, she drops off emergency food packs, clothing and school supplies to local schools. And the need continues to grow, to the point that this spring, Caring For Kids moved into its new official center in a former CPSD school out near Woodbrook Middle School.

There, Caring For Kids has the space to house its clothing bank and store blankets, shoes, food, dolls, trucks, hygeine kits, backpacks in all sizes, crayons in all styles, reams of notebook paper – you name it; it’s there.

The reliance that schools have on Caring For Kids is why every penny raised goes right back to the kids.

“It fills a significant void the school districts are unable to fill for many children in need in all three districts,” said board member Ed Hildebrandt, who, with his wife Pat, has been involved with Caring For Kids for 15 years.

Myra Johnson, the school counselor at Lakeview Hope Academy, calls on Formoso for about 10 pairs of shoes a year—in addition to countless drop-offs for other needed items.

“Diane is tireless,” she said last year. “She helps me with shoes, food, school supplies … whatever I call her and say I need, she’s like ‘You got it – tomorrow.’ It’s amazing.”

~ Keeping costs low ~

Formoso said Caring For Kids benefits from not having many overhead expenses. Aside from paying for licensing and insurance for the organization’s van, which hauls everything from cases of food and mismatched flatware to Disney Princess dolls and hundreds of pairs of shoes at a time, the only big expense is about $1,200 a year to pay for storage in University Place for the Holiday Fair.

Despite having the spacious new center, Formoso said it is easier to keep the supplies for that event separate. That way, she can just go pick them up and bring them to the cafeteria at Hudtloff Middle School.

“It’s the easiest thing we do,” she said of the Holiday Fair, which provides clothes and Christmas presents for more than 2,000 needy students – and their siblings – as well some holiday-meal items, such as a ham and potatoes. Some years, there are vegetables and rolls. Other years, things are tighter. 

The sheer volume of toys and clothes is staggering, but Formoso shrugs it off as everyday shopping.

“You just really have to look around and work at shopping all the time,” she said. “I just bought 200 Disney cars – really cool car sets – that were $20 each, and buy one, get one free.”

As for the most challenging event, Formoso said it’s a toss-up between the Ready to Learn Fair and the Happy Hearts Auction. The former has so many components – clothes, school supplies, haircuts, vaccinations – and the latter, which is held every February at the McGavick Center at Clover Park Technical College, involves soliciting donations and money. This year, $50,000 was raised at the auction and dinner.

Caring For Kids also holds Stuff the Bus in late November, where community members are invited to donate money and unwrapped toys and coats that are distributed at the Holiday Fair, and sells poinsettias during the holidays. There are other events, too, such as takeovers of The Ram and last year’s inaugural Fill the Fire Engine outside the Lakewood Safeway, which was held in conjunction with West Pierce Fire & Rescue, for which two board members are employees.

And, because it is a nonprofit – Caring For Kids operates under the umbrella of the Uniserv Council – there are grants, including one worth $22,000 from the City of Lakewood.

~ A thankless job ~

Leaving no stone unturned is necessary to keep the organization running.

“That’s the number one thing,” Formoso said, “the money.”

It’s also what keeps Formoso up at night.

“When we get anxious for money, and when we worry we’re not going to have enough money …” She trailed off. “But it just keeps working.”

So will there ever come a day that she’s not worried about money?

“No,” she said. “I mean, we’ve got the money now, but I don’t know if we’ll be able to apply for the grant we have had the past couple of years – that’s like $50,000 – and if that goes away, things will get really tight.

“Being worried … it’s ongoing.”

Formoso also admits that people don’t always realize how much work goes into helping needy children. Sometimes, she is greeted with immense gratitude. Sometimes, she isn’t even acknowledged.

“It is a thankless job,” she said.

Former board president Shawn Munsey, a teacher at Cherrydale Primary School in Steilacoom, said it can be frustrating that the organization doesn’t get as much participation from stakeholders as it should.

“I would love to see more people in the school districts and the community supporting us,” she said.

But one thing Formoso doesn’t have to worry about is finding direct support. She has a board comprised of loyal friends and community members, the backing of her family – her husband, daughter-in-law, sister and brother-in-law are all on the board – and strong community contacts.

“I don’t have a wingman,” she said. “I have several wing people.”

Those people, in turn, are only too happy to help out with what Munsey describes as a true grassroots organization.

“Everyone volunteers,” she said. “And the caliber of the folks on the board is amazing!”

Hildebrandt agreed.

“It is a personally rewarding experience working with such a dedicated group of caring people – motivated by Diane – who see and understand the needs of our children.

“We get to do something about it by helping children and their families with their school needs.”

And there is never a shortage of volunteers at Caring For Kids events, from church groups to National Honor Society members from the local high schools – even if they never know who’s coming.

“(People ask) how many volunteers are coming, and I say I don’t know,” Formoso said. “I don’t have anyone’s name written down, but every year, we end up with plenty of volunteers.

“Everything always seems to work out.”

~~~

Coming tomorrow: A look at Diane Formoso, the woman behind Caring For Kids.

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