Agencies help families find the way forward
Because Waukesha County has historically been a relatively wealthy community, many here know nothing of the many services available to struggling residents and families. The Lake Area Free Clinic in Oconomowoc provides medical attention and practical information for individuals who lack health insurance and whose income is at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
Food pantries serve every corner of the county, and organizations such as Lake Country Caring in Hartland help provide furniture, hygiene products, bedding and clothing to qualified families in need.
"There's probably about 900 active families registered," said Lake Country Caring's Kerry Glapinski. "We serve a four-county area, but over 90 percent of the families are from Waukesha County."
She added, "People have the misconception that there isn't a lot of need in the Lake Country area, and that's where we fill a huge gap, because there aren't any other organizations, that we're aware of, that do what we do."
Its staff, with more than 10,000 hours of volunteer time, is 100 percent volunteer-based, and each registered family receives free merchandise.
"The last few years there has been a significant increase in the registration of new families coming in - because of the loss of jobs, without a doubt," Glapinski said. "Without a doubt we're seeing families struggling, people that are working that aren't able to make ends meet.
"Our focus is to try and help families so that whatever services we provide to them stretches their income. If you're living on a fixed or limited income, and you're able to come in and get clothing for your children or a piece of furniture, or hygiene products, or whatever it is, that means that your income can provide food or transportation to get to work, rent, whatever it is."
A wholistic approach
The goal of Lake Country Caring, food pantries and other relief agencies in the county is to help families and individuals get back on their feet and off the system.
The Mukwonago Food Pantry takes a wholistic approach when it evaluates clients. The food pantry has between 250 and 300 families per month that rely on it for food, yet it serves more than 4,600 households per year through various other services it provides.
A nurse visits twice a month to provide basic medical care. The pantry provides flu shots, delivers boxes of food to elderly homebound residents, and even occasionally has someone come to provide tenant assistance for people who have received a five-day notice of eviction. Medicare representatives visit the pantry to teach people how to maximize their benefits, and a nurse provides a free exercise program for seniors as well.
"We talk to everyone that comes in to see why they're coming," said Food Pantry Coordinator Cindy Eggleston. "Then we work with other agencies in a partnership so that we can create a place where they can come not only for food, but they can come and get the medical stuff they need and the informational stuff that they need and all those other things. That's why they need the food in the first place, because they can't afford all these other things."
According to Eggleston, when she and two others helped start the Mukwonago Food Pantry 25 years ago, they agreed they needed to do more than just offer food.
"We need to address the whole person. Not just the part that's hungry. You have to address the whole person. Because otherwise you're giving them food and you're not helping," she said.
"We have them be actively involved in creating a better situation for themselves. So when they come here, they know that we're not just going to give them food and see them next month. We're going to give them food, and we're going to sit down and say, 'do you need help with a resume? Do you need help finding a job? What kind of job do you do? Do you need help with medical? The nurse can help you get medications a little less,' " she explained.
Eggleston believes that their system creates accountability not only for the food pantry but for the people receiving aid. But the program requires four daily volunteers and generous contributions from a variety of donors.
Karen Tredwell of the Food Pantry of Waukesha County explained, "The traditional program of welfare no longer exists. It's not easy to get food stamps. It's not easy to get assistance, contrary to somewhat popular belief. However, when somebody is low-income, if they have access to free food or clothing, it will enable them to start, hopefully, once they are meeting their monetary obligations on a regular basis, maybe eventually build a few more assets and hopefully carry on self-sufficiently without any other assistance."
In the meantime, she said, access to free food frees up money to pay for other expenses such as childcare, fuel to get to work, medical costs, housing, utilities or even rebuilding a savings account.
"Overall someone who is getting that free food will be less of a burden on the other (government) system," she said.
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