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Volunteering in the Call Center: Summer Meals

By Board Member Molly Firth, with Michael Firth

On a recent sunny weekend, I convinced my husband Mike, to join me for a couple hours of volunteering in the WithinReach Family Health Hotline Call Center. He usually doesn’t have weekends off, so it was asking a lot, and I was glad he was interested. I was eager to spend some time helping WithinReach connect families with the resources they need to be healthy – in this case, the Summer Meals program.

First, let me share that neither of us have any experience in a call center. I work in public policy and Mike flies planes – so, this was pretty far outside of our comfort zones. Glory, a WithinReach AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer, prepared us with a script; along with information about WithinReach and the Summer Meals program. She then showed us how to use the Resource Finder on to access local information for families. We were also handed a form to log the results of our contacts. Once our training was complete we put our headsets on and started dialing. What could go wrong?! Fortunately, nothing!

Between the two of us, we called over 80 households to inform and assist them in finding a Summer Meals site in their neighborhood. Nobody hung up on me (which I was grateful for) and most people were happy to hear more about a program providing free meals to their children during the summer. One woman I spoke with already knew about the Summer Meals program and did not need any additional information, but was very appreciative about the offer for assistance. She almost seemed surprised that WithinReach’s Family Health Hotline would call her to tell her about a resource in her community!

A majority of my calls went to voice-mail which made me a bit jealous of the volunteers sitting near me, including Mike, who seemed to be helping more families. Overhearing their sides of the conversations was distracting at times – and I thought, how does the call center staff remain focused with all the noise surrounding them.

Mike’s observations: 50% of my calls resulted in connecting with people enjoying a sunny weekend—some were out with their kids at a park or running errands, and one lady was even at a wedding! Most people were grateful for the call but did not need Summer Meals, but a handful wanted more information and I helped them find a place in their neighborhood where they could take their kids for lunch, a snack, or breakfast. Every one of those individuals said thank you in a really heartfelt way that many of us probably don’t hear often.

Despite serving on the Board for the past three years, I have not had the time to directly interface with the families we support. It was a good way to share in the experience of the call center staff and provide direct assistance to families in need. We walked out the door feeling good about the two hours we spent connecting families with great resources and look forward to more opportunities to do so!

Tags: Board Member   Family Health Hotline   ParentHelp123   summer meals   volunteering   

We Love the United Way Tax Site Partnership

Written by AmeriCorps Members, Travis Bassett and Angela Ko

We’ve been setting up shop at United Way tax sites in King and Snohomish counties for the last few months.  The bustling seasonal offices, where trained United Way volunteers help community members make sense of the tax return process, have been productive sites for WithinReach’s Health Insurance and Food Security outreach efforts.

This lets us help connect even more community members to the resources they need , and the convenience of working with clients who have just finished hashing out their taxes streamline our work flow considerably.

Some of us have even made use of United Ways’ tax assistance themselves.  Angela Ko, an Americorps member doing her service at WithinReach recently had her taxes completed at a United Way tax site. “They make the process easy and you do not have to wait long at all. I just brought my Form W2, social security number, and banking account information.”  Angela went to the site in Greenbridge YWCA which she describes as, “Professional and well-run. I felt confident my taxes were in good hands.”

This confidence in the level of service from the United Way of King County tax volunteers is reassuring to us in our role as in-person assistors stationed at sites. Travis, an AmeriCorps member helps individuals sign up for health insurance at the Seattle Central Library. “Because individuals may already have all the necessary information with them, it allows for efficient enrollment.”

Still need application assistance for health insurance or help filing your taxes? You can find a site in King County or Snohomish County.

My Day Spent Shadowing the WithinReach AmeriCorps Team

Written by Laird F. Harris, WithinReach board Secretary-Treasurer

I visited the North King Community Services Office on Monday to watch WithinReach in-person assisters help people sign up for health insurance.  It was a terrific experience.   I was blown away by the five incredible AmeriCorps volunteers working that day.  And, oh by the way, I saw first-hand the incredible need for the assistance they provide.

Nearly all of the people who came seeking assistance were visibly uncertain about what they could expect.  Typically, they had attempted to navigate Washington healthplanfinder but had run into road blocks.  Some were moving from traditional Medicaid to the Washington Apple Health program.  A few simply had no insurance and saw their chance for coverage.  Many were immigrants.  English language proficiency ranged from very rudimentary to highly fluent.  I watched as 19 different cases were addressed and no two were the same.

Here’s what impressed me the most and why I think the WithinReach staff and AmeriCorps are regarded so highly. The AmeriCorps crew members are very smart and well-informed but their ability to build trust very quickly is the secret sauce.  They are empathetic, listen extremely well and communicate at the level that is needed for the individual or family seeking help.  It is also clear from the start that they are there to be problem solvers.  I saw apprehension and wariness disappear in minutes.  Not all problems were solved but people left knowing that they had someone who would continue working with them.

Yvonne, Christina, Natasha, Jess and Travis were the AmeriCorps volunteers at the CSO.  When I first arrived, I sat in as Yvonne worked with a 34 year old mom of four trying to get coverage for her family.  The woman arrived with green cards and social security documents for herself, her husband and their four boys.  Her English was fair but heavily accented.  The family’s names were unfamiliar.  The family had not been in the US long enough for the adults to get enrolled in Washington Apple Health. The woman thought that she was in the DSHS system but Yvonne could not verify this.  Not surprisingly, the woman was apprehensive as the interview began.

Within 20 minutes, this young mom left with a smile.  Her family was now in the system.  She had a name and the face of someone who would continue to be there to assist with future problems.
After I had been there for a while, Christina brought a woman to talk with me.  She introduced herself as a public health nurse who worked at the CSO.  She wanted to let me know how appreciative she was of WithinReach.  She recounted a situation in which she tried everything she could think of to help a client get signed up for coverage but ran into roadblocks at every turn.  Someone suggested that she call WithinReach.  She called.  The problems were solved.  And she doesn’t believe anyone else could have done the job.  Wow!

One group of three arrived and it appeared that a Spanish language speaker was needed.  Christina took the group back into the work area.  Sometime later, I went to the area and saw two of the three hunched over Travis’s computer as he was dealing with their issues while the third person who needed Spanish language assistance got help from Christina.  Turns out they were not a family and each had different needs and issues.  Nice teamwork.

I listened as Jess got to the end of her session having to explain that she could not do any more with the information that she could access remotely.  Her client was disappointed but Jess did a good job of explaining how she would get additional help when she returned to the office and would get back with answers.  This was not the result that either Jess or her client wanted.  Handling disappointment is not easy, but Jess was very reassuring.

I was also impressed by the work done by community volunteers Joe and Kathy Jenkins.  Kathy is retired from a career in social work and Joe from a professorship.  They were the first point of contact for people seeking assistance.  With a few questions, Joe and Kathy were able to “triage” the new people, let them know what to expect and, in some cases, help them begin the sign up process.  It is so important for people to get information when they first arrive and know when they will be seen.

I have no idea what other in-person assister transactions are like but I suspect that few measure up to the skilled, compassionate and effective work that I witnessed at the North King CSO Monday morning.

The 2014 tax season is here!

Written by Ian Nelson, Financial Stability Manager of United Way of Snohomish County

Each year, United Way of Snohomish County provides free tax preparation for individuals and families at 6 locations across the county.  Last year this effort put back more than $5.1 million into the local economy through tax refunds, with more than $1.6 million of refunds from the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a tax credit available to low-income, working families. The IRS estimates that every year, 1 in 5 people who qualify for the Earned Income Credit do not claim it simply because they do not know they qualify, meaning they are leaving thousands of dollars behind each tax season by not filing a return.
United Way of Snohomish County strives to provide taxpayers with access to other asset building opportunities when clients come to get their taxes prepared.  Partnering with WithinReach is crucial to helping taxpayers receive lasting benefits and services long after tax season ends.  WithinReach’s Asset Specialist team screens customers for available healthcare and food benefits, gives out job training information, pulls credit reports and provides other financial resources like free banking through Bank On North Sound.  They also use the incredible database of resources on  to connect people with community clinics, WIC, food banks and utility assistance programs.Together we provide a one-stop-shopping experience where clients leave with their taxes prepared and a variety of resources to help build their assets. This creates the opportunity to combine the one time lump sum payment of a tax refund with the lasting income boost provided through assets and public benefits. Each January we look to improve these services to serve Snohomish County better and with WithinReach, 2014 should be another successful year!

Tags: earned income tax credit   Tax sites   United Way   

Heart and Desire: An Unstoppable Combination

I am writing this after the big Seahawk win on Monday Night Football. I admit I am a fair weather football fan, but you have to love this team. They are playing with heart and desire–an unstoppable combination.

There are two things I love about professional sports, especially with a winning team. The exhibiting of unconditional support (one might even say love) between teammates and the unifying effect it has on the community. It seemed like you couldn’t go around town without people talking about the game, displaying their 12th man support and predicting  a good game. The Hawks delivered, we just might be the best team in the NFL.

The Hawks and the WithinReach team have a lot in common. We are sometimes underestimated and yet we continue to deliver high quality results. We support each other unconditionally, and there isn’t a lot of inner team “fighting”. And most importantly we play every day with heart and passion–there’s more at stake for us then a fancy football ring, a healthy community is our big win.

Go team!

Client Stories Add Richness to the Outreach Experience

Written by YuYen Chan, one of our AmeriCorps members working to connect vulnerable families to food and health resources.

As AmeriCorps members on WithinReach’s Healthy Connections team, a large part of our work includes in-person community outreach, a phrase deemed to broadly encompass our work of seeking individuals directly at sites such as food banks, schools, and hospitals. With over forty sites scattered across King and Snohomish counties, we work with communities of different cultures, socio-economic backgrounds, and ethnicities. We are assigned regularly to the same sites- so that we may develop a rapport with local clients and community staff.  It is wonderful to be able to see the same clients regularly; especially the ones we have helped connect to local community resources or Basic Food (food stamps) or health insurance.

Outreach experience inevitably varies depending on the site that we are assigned to. In Edmonds, for example, our outreach is located indoors, with luxuries such as seating and heat. In downtown Seattle at Saint Mary’s, however, our experience is a little different. We bring our own folding table and chairs to the outdoor site, and if it is raining, we have three options:  we carry a pop up tent , we seek shelter underneath a small tree that provides marginal protection against precipitation, or we embrace our inner strength and brave the elements. At another site on the Eastside, we find ourselves in between a rustic food bank, a dainty thrift store, and a little fire station located in the quaint town of Issaquah. Indeed, it is difficult to say which site I’d prefer, for every site seems to exhibit a unique personality, with a mix of client demographics, site location, building structure, food offered, and local volunteers or staff.  At some sites we approach individuals when they are in line at a food bank, and other times people line up to talk with us at our table. Some days I find myself with some free time and I daydream about lunch; other days I am too busy to even think about food for myself!

Listening to my clients’ storytelling is probably my favorite parts of outreach. While I love setting people up with the food and health resources that are available to them, the stories they tell about their lives are the experiences that I remember the most. When a client shares a story with me, I am transported to the places and adventures they describe. A month ago, I could perfectly imagine myself sitting in a room full of 2nd graders while listening to my client, a former teacher, lecturing about the printing press.  Last week, I pictured myself living on an enormous fishing vessel in Alaska with a client I had just met, battling ferocious waves and catching 40lb king salmons, stopping off at ports in the night and visiting bars with the local fishermen. Today, through my clients story I was transported to the jungles of Vietnam , struggling to escape death during a war.

It has only been a month since I started doing outreach, but I truly enjoy the experience. At the end of the day, the most satisfactory feeling comes from knowing that I have done the best I can to improve the lives of my clients. Over the last month there have been some challenges as we assist people in signing up for the new health insurance plans, but those trials pale in comparison to the benefits we can already see. I look forward to the coming year- working with new people, seeing new sites and hearing more stories.

Washington Apple Health: A Health Insurance Answer for Many Parents

If you have questions about applying for health insurance or need assistance completing your application on Washington Healthplanfinder call the WithinReach Family Health Hotline at 1-800-322-2588.
One of the many things we do in the WithinReach Call Center is to connect families to free or low cost medical insurance for their children.  Many families call us in desperation.  Sometimes it is a mom wondering how the family will afford to cover that unexpected medical expense, anticipating a startlingly high bill in the days ahead.  Other times a dad calls, having just received word from his employer that premiums for his health coverage will be increasing, making it difficult to make ends meet.  The common element to all of these scenarios is the relief, and often-unexpected surprise, that the Apple Health for Kids Program can take much of the financial burden off their family.
For 12 years, WithinReach has helped sign up children for Apple Health for Kids (AHK), the free or low cost health insurance. Last year we helped enroll around 4,300 kids and provided information about AHK to 20,300 more families. When we start applications for parents over the phone, we realize how resilient our Washington callers are.  They often find that they have to prioritize.  They worry about meeting the needs of their children, before their own needs.  Sometimes, after we complete the application for their children’s health insurance, they ask: “Is there something like this for adults?”  Unfortunately, in the past, we have had very few options to give low-income adults who are uninsured but that is about to change with Affordable Care Act taking effect right around the corner. Washington State’s Health Care Authority capitalized on the success of the children’s Apple Health for Kids brand and has created Washington Apple Health, a spinoff brand for its adult Medicaid program.
Many people are not sure what the Affordable Care Act will really mean for their family or find themselves anxious about what to expect in the coming months.  At the WithinReach Family Health Hotline, we are proud and excited about the opportunity to connect families to the health care relief that the Affordable Care Act will offer!  It will be such a reward to tell many parents that there now is affordable health insurance coverage for adults as well as their children.
October 1, 2013 is when the Washington HealthPlanFinder call center and website will open.  New health care insurance plans start on January 1, 2014.  If you have questions, we will be here, just a phone call away and ready to help.
If you have questions about applying for health insurance or need assistance completing your application on Washington Healthplanfinder call the WithinReach Family Health Hotline at 1-800-322-2588.

Tags: Affordable Care Act   Apple health for Kids   health insurance   HealthPlanFinder   

My First Visit to a Food Bank

Sixteen year old guest blogger Sara from Woodinville, WA is back! Look for her weekly blog posts that will examine a current event from a teen perspective and connect to resources on

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to go to the Cherry Street Food Bank in downtown Seattle and volunteer with the WithinReach Bridge to Basics Program which is a group of AmeriCorps service members (one of them is pictured here) who provide benefits information and application assistance at sites throughout King and Snohomish Counties. We were there to help sign people up for food stamps and promote other food and health resources to the people waiting in the food line.

Watching the people there made me realize there are several different faces and ages to homelessness and hunger.  Everyone thinks of the homeless guy standing on the corner holding up a sign.  But this was different.  There were a variety of people young and old. Personally, seeing the younger kids was difficult. I’ve been fortunate to grow up in a financially stable middle class family in the suburbs.   I never wondered where my next meals was coming from.  I never realized how fortunate I was, and how much I took my house with a fully stocked fridge for granted until going to Cherry Street.

The whole experience itself was quite emotionally heavy but it definitely opened my eyes to what is really out there when one gets out of the suburbs and sees the reality of homelessness and hunger in our communities.

If you are interested in learning more about Bridge to Basics or volunteering with the program, please contact Erin Milliren at

Balancing the Budget & Tough Choices Families Make Everyday

Olympia managed to avert a budget crisis, much to the relief of Washington citizens and many lawmakers. It took months of work, negotiations and two special sessions to come up with a final budget that our legislators could agree to. During the process, furlough notices were sent to workers whose employment depended on state funding.  Single parents that relied on childcare subsidies scrambled to make arrangements under already difficult circumstances.  Pregnant women, caregivers and parents wondered if they might get the aid that goes a long way in providing much needed nutrition for their families.  During these last two weeks of budget negotiations the word “budget” seemed to be at the forefront of everyone’s mind.  At WithinReach we worried what the looming government shutdown could mean for the most vulnerable families we work with.

We were relieved when we learned a budget passed and a government shutdown avoided. Unfortunately, these feelings of accomplishment and relief did not come to all.  There are thousands of families in Washington that are not able to balance their household budgets and provide their families with basic needs.  At the WithinReach Family Health Hotline, we talk to these families every day.  These families make concessions and choices about what to fund and what to forgo on a daily basis. These are hard choices.  Pay the rent or feed the family?  They choose to find a way, and sometimes they ask for help.

The families we talk to want to know that they are doing everything in their power to keep their children on track.   They want to provide enough food for their children so that they have the necessary nutrition to focus and do well in school. They want their children to receive health insurance so that they will not have to forgo medical care or be strapped with huge hospital bills. They want for their children what we believe all children deserve—access to healthy food and quality health care.  The recent budget passing helped to remind us of the important role these government benefit programs serve in the lives of families throughout Washington. They truly help to lessen the financial struggles of families and help parents breathe easier knowing their children have what they need to be healthy. We are happy to answer those phone calls, and help to alleviate the tough choices that many of those families are forced to make every day.

Tags: benefit programs   budget   Family Health Hotline   Washington   Washington Legislature   

Lessons Learned From a Day at WithinReach

At the beginning of the month, Gig Harbor 8th Grader Claudia Reutercrona visited WithinReach for her school’s job shadow day. Here are some of her reflections from that day.

WithinReach Reflections
By Claudia Reutercrona

Personally, I think of people as balls of play dough. They come into this world fresh, warm, and perfectly spherical. But as you play with it and take it out into the world it gets shaped and formed into something completely unique and different than any other piece of play dough out there. Then that play dough hardens, after leaving it out for a while, into its shape. Then that hardened piece of play dough gets to go out into the huge ball of play dough that is the world and find where it can make an imprint on the world in a way that no other piece can. But to make play dough you have to have all of the ingredients and so many people in the world don’t have access to everything they need, whether it is the salt, water, flour, food coloring, or the hot stove to cook it on.

I am an eighth grade student from Gig Harbor, Washington. On Thursday, June 6, my school had a job shadow day. Almost every student chose a place or a job that they wanted to go to for their job shadow and mine was WithinReach. During my day at WithinReach I was able to learn about what they do, why they do it, and how they make it happen and it was amazing. WithinReach helps people to access those things that they need. They help to inform people of the programs they qualify for and they help them apply for them too. They are trying to make sure that everyone has a fair chance at the things that are necessary to survive.

I started out my day with Kay Knox, the deputy director of WithinReach. I got to talk to Kay all about what the organization does, their goals, and all sorts of things at WithinReach! Kay got me all set up to head out on my day at WithinReach. While at WithinReach I got to listen in on the Family Health Hotline phone lines with Jose and Thalia and hear about quite a few different situations. I got to watch as Jose and Thalia talked to the people who needed help and fill out information to see what they were eligible for. It was so cool to see how everything worked and how they got people the information that they needed. I also got to talk to Jose and Thalia about their recommendations for how I could get a job like theirs, their schooling, and what it is like to work at WithinReach.

Next, I went to a Cultural Competency meeting. At first I was very confused (to say the least). But as the meeting went on I learned more about what cultural competency even is and what it has to do with WithinReach. I learned about the Farm Bill, how different races compare on tests such as the MSP, and many other things. It was a lot of information that I actually found very interesting and useful! After that I was able to meet with Tracy and Anna who work in community engagement. I learned all about how WithinReach raises awareness of their organization through things like Facebook, Twitter, advertisements, flyers, and other types of social media. I also got to learn about how they do their fundraising. I got to have so much fun with Tracy and Anna and taking pictures around the office!

After meeting up with Kay again for lunch and a wonderful conversation, I went to FamilyWorks in Wallingford to do outreach with Donna Quach, an Americorps volunteer. With Donna we talked to the people at a food bank about getting involved with programs such as food stamps,  Apple Health for Kids, and getting health insurance. Donna told me all about how she is able to help the public, what it is like to be an AmeriCorps volunteer, and how she got to where she is now. Even though the food bank wasn’t very busy, I was still able to learn so much from Donna! Everything I was able to experience at WithinReach was so amazing and so enjoyable. I loved every minute of being there and I can’t wait to come back another time to get to experience the rest of WithinReach that I wasn’t able to experience today.

Everyone I met while at WithinReach was so nice and welcoming and I felt at home right away! Everyone was so helpful to me and was more than happy to answer any and all of my questions! WithinReach is so wonderful and I couldn’t think of a better place for a job shadow! When I grow up, all I want to do is help people. WithinReach was a wonderful place for me to learn about and experience doing just that. I can see myself working at WithinReach or another non-profit organization like this at some point in the future as I work towards finding the perfect career where I can fulfill my dreams.

Summer Meals: Free Meals for Kids all Summer

Q and A with St. Leo Food Connection Director, Kevin Glackin-Coley

Q: What is the Summer Meals program?

A: For the parents of the 467,279 Washington schoolchildren who receive free or reduced price school meals, summer can be a time of struggle as they stretch available dollars to cover the gap left by school meals. The Summer Meals Program helps by providing free nutritious meals and snacks to kids and teens during the summer months. Summer meal sites are located in schools, recreation centers, community-based organizations, faith-based organizations, and camps. The program begins at the end of the school year, and ends in the fall when school begins. All kids and teens (18 years old and younger) are eligible for the program, regardless of income.

Q: Why would a food bank operate Summer Meals sites?

A: At St. Leo Food Connection we run the largest food bank in Pierce County and one of the only food banks in the county that is open on Saturdays. Our Backpack Program provides two days worth of food on Fridays to more than 600 children at numerous Tacoma and Clover Park Public Schools. We know from the growth of this program that many children in our community are at-risk of going hungry. This sad truth is only exacerbated during the summer when school breakfasts and lunches are not available for many of the children who rely on them during the school year. Last year we served more than 700 children daily throughout the summer, but we know that the need is even greater. With the program expansions that we are putting into place, we anticipate that we will be serving close to 800 children on weekdays throughout the summer.

Q: How does the Summer Meals Program impact the community?

A: Parents and caregivers in the community are relieved to know that they have a safe place to send their kids for healthy meals during the summer. Last year a grandmother of several kids who attended one of our sites expressed it this way, “The Summer Feeding Program is really good for the kids because it gives them fresh foods and it is really hard to buy fresh foods on public assistance. Sometimes when a parent could not give their child snacks, they would keep their kids inside because they did not have enough snacks for all the kids outside. You feel bad for the other kids, but you cannot really help them. The SFP means food equity for the kids here at the apartments.”

To locate a Summer Meals site near you, call the Family Food Hotline, 1-888-436-6392 or visit the online search tool at ParentHelp123.

Tags: food   food bank   hunger   low income   summer meals   

Ask the Call Center

Describe a day in the life of a information and referral specialist.

The scope of our day can really vary, but mostly we spend our time talking to callers about the various forms of food and medical assistance they may be eligible for through the state. These include programs such as free medical insurance, food stamps, or WIC vouchers. We are also helping individuals and families begin their application for these programs so that they don’t feel overwhelmed by the process once they hang up. We are reachable by phone, e-mail, and text to get our callers the information that they need.

What was the most interesting call you received in the last month and why?

I recently spoke to a family whose primary source of income was from the military. Because of this, they had assumed that they were not eligible for any form of assistance. The mother originally called looking for food resources, but the call evolved into a discussion about her children. It turns out that she had a special needs child who required specific services that were not completely covered by their insurance. By the end of the call, we were able to determine that she was eligible for free medical coverage through the state that would absorb the additional high cost of seeing specialists that was not covered through her primary insurance.

What is the number one reason that you feel like your work is meaningful?

Understanding state assistance can be very difficult. With our knowledge and experience, we are able to de-mystify these programs to the people that need them the most.  We help by breaking down complicated information and identifying barriers that out callers may be experiencing to accessing public benefits. Many people don’t realize that they are truly eligible for a variety of assistance to help support their families. It is incredibly meaningful to connect someone to assistance that they had perceived as out of their reach.

Tags: call center   food stamps   free medical insurance   WIC vouchers   

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