by Ann M. Colford

Imagine that your family needs food, your baby's clothes don't fit and you can't afford more, or that paying your energy bill will overdraw your account. Where would you go? If you didn't have a car, how many bus transfers would it take to get from one outreach program to the next, and could you still get to work on time?

Every year, programs of all kinds are formed to help people in need. Yet people who use these programs often don't need more of them; they need the ability to utilize what already exists.

Mollie Dalpae, executive director of the Spokane Valley Community Center (SVCC), realizes this. She's been on a mission to centralize the Valley's community programs, making them more accessible for people in need. Dalpae's vision has made the Valley Community Center an umbrella for 11 nonprofit organizations and numerous other services; it serves 160 square miles and about 62,000 people a year. Community leaders from as far away as Philadelphia have visited the center, seeking ways to apply Dalpae's formula to their own communities. And last December, the SVCC was featured in Time magazine.

"In Spokane, Wash., there is a beacon of hope for people struggling to escape poverty," the feature read. "Spokane Valley Community Center helps put people on the path to independence."

One-Stop Shopping -- Dalpae says the current SVCC is the product of a brainstorming retreat with staff back in 1999. The vision: invite multiple community programs into one working space, combining their resources. It wasn't a completely new idea, but it wasn't being done, either. The SVCC's current residence was far too small. Founded in 1987 by a consortium of Valley-area churches, the center was a small building with offices Dalpae had worked out of since 1990. So Dalpae set out to secure funding for a larger site.

The Spokane Regional Health District helped determine the best location for a new center by creating a scatter map, showing concentrations of need in the Valley based on poverty, violence and transportation pathways. Dalpae says the map revealed high concentrations along the Broadway corridor. After looking at numerous sites, they decided to renovate the 24,000-square-foot former Valley Church of the Nazarene at 10814 E. Broadway.

"We thought it was going to take years to fill this building up," Dalpae says. "We were full before we even moved in. Before one scrap of carpet was removed from the church, we had signed leases and had rented out the entire building."

The SVCC houses two state-run nonprofits, including the Spokane Regional Health District and Women Infant and Children (WIC) services, nine private non-profits, not including the center's own programs and services. There is a theater, a computer room and a nurse's station. There are two full-time and three part-time staff and 125 volunteers. Dalpae admits that housing so many organizations gets complicated.

"There are many challenges, as there are in any big, extended family," she says. In fact, Dalpae finds herself utilizing the same coping skills she teaches to families who come in.

"We are number one in the nation for meth labs, number 10 in the nation for bomb labs; the Broadway corridor is number one in the county for domestic violence. Obviously we have a huge violence issue here," Dalpae says, noting that children in violent situations can receive aid more efficiently at the SVCC because the services are separated by hallways, not freeways.

"When police find children in a meth lab, they have to completely detoxify them," Dalpae says. She explains that children are brought to the center with nothing, often even without clothes, due to the poisons they were exposed to.

"In half an afternoon, we'll discover how to best help the whole situation because we're not on the phone for days. We just walk down the hall," Dalpae says, noting that a child can receive clothes from the clothing bank, a meal and immediate counseling under one roof.

Fishing Lessons -- The Valley Food Bank hands out food to hundreds of families. But Dalpae says that while giving is important, teaching people how to provide for themselves is crucial to independence and self-respect.

"I can give you beans and milk and rice till it's coming out my ears, but if you don't know how to use it, it's not going to help you," she says.

If a family is exhausting the Food Bank, Dalpae says, she signs them up for cooking classes, also taught at the center. This methodology goes for all the center's services.

"We teach classes that help people learn how to cut costs," Dalpae explains. "We try to teach energy conservation and living green." Each family who receives assistance with an energy bill must enroll in an energy conservation class taught at the center. If there is a history of drug abuse with a family member, the center can collect the government checks or paychecks and help people spend wisely.

"Seventy percent of our families work," Dalpae says. Because the center promotes independence, families team up with staff to establish a household budget if they don't already have one. The SVCC also provides bus passes, notarization and telephone answering services if the family doesn't have a phone.

"The community colleges of Spokane work here with GEDs," Dalpae says. "They provide practice testing and tutoring."

Programs help people learn strategies to increase their pay, and job coaching for people looking for employment. People can also take food-handling permit classes and even register to vote.

"We have voting here, and it's difficult because the entire lobby becomes a precinct. But it's great because it lessens the fear and intimidation that comes with it," Dalpae says, noting that one reason poor people don't vote is because they feel incompetent to do so. At the center, she explains, people are in their comfort zone and are often around others who feel as nervous as they do.

Kristen Young works at the center part-time and also utilizes the resources there for herself and her children. Young says the center provides more than services; it's a refuge.

"This is my break," she says, laughing. "At school, I'm working hard, concentrating. At home, I'm chasing the kids."

Young is attending Apollo College while working at the center 20 hours a week. She takes care of her four children, who range from 18 months to 11 years, and her mother, who is disabled.

"The best part about working here is the relief on people's faces when they come in to get help," she says. "People come in desperate -- just desperate. And if there's any way for them to help out, the center will do it," she says.

While the emotional benefits from helping people are definitely an integral part of the center, spirituality is not. Dalpae notes that even though local churches teamed up to found the center, there is no religious outreach.

Supporting Success -- The Spokane Valley Community Center provides all this assistance, but at what cost? Surprisingly, these public services come cheap; it costs taxpayers almost nothing, because the center is almost completely privately funded.

"We are funded by individuals, churches, organizations, private foundations, fund-raisers and community donations," Dalpae says. The center has received $250,000 donations from both the Cowles and Gates foundations, and a $350,000 donation from the Comstock Foundation. Numerous other private donors have contributed to the SVCC, rewarding the work Dalpae and others have done to help consolidate community programs.

"We apply for grants that fit well with what we do. We're fortunate people recognize the interconnectedness between the work place and here," Dalpae says. "When the economy bottoms out, it's us that still makes sure communities have food, clothing."

Though the SVCC itself doesn't use government money, WIC, a part of the Spokane Regional Health District, which provides services for new mothers and babies within the center, is state-funded. And recently, Dalpae says, the SVCC has been given a County Development Block Grant to pay the salary of one staff member because the cost of the new building and its renovation was higher than expected.

Dalpae, by her own admission, isn't a patient person. She sees what needs to be done and works until it is so. Now that her community center is full and her funding is more secure than most nonprofits in this economic climate, what else is there for Dalpae to take on?

"We'd like to be the new city Human Services Department," she says, referring to the Valley's incorporation. The city of Spokane Valley is expected to allocate one percent of its budget toward human services.

"There is really no reason for them to have a separate department," Dalpae explains, noting the community center has all the equipment to operate the service from there. She plans to present this at the Valley city council meeting on Tuesday, March 18.

"There is work to do now," Dalpae says enthusiastically. "If we wait to slowly build up reserves, we will never be able to meet the needs or ease the financial pressure for low- and middle-income families who want to better their lives and the lives of their children."

Roster of Services -- The Valley Community Center houses the following nonprofits:

Valley Food Bank

Spokane Neighborhood

Action Program (SNAP)

Institute For Extended Learning

Spokane Regional Health

District and WIC programs

Homeless Education And

Resource Team (HEART)

Lutheran Community Services


Family Service Spokane

Catholic Charities

Theater Arts for Children


These programs run alongside the center's own programs, which include the clothing bank, Emergency Assistance Program, Protective Payee, back-to-school supplies, Project YESS and more.

For information about how you can donate, volunteer, or utilize these services, please call the Spokane Valley Community Center at 927-1153.

Publication date: 03/13/03

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