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Giving children books opens their minds, expands opportunities

Because she believes that reading books opens doors and minds, Marilee Roloff delights in helping distribute more than 50,000 books Scholastic, Inc., donates through the national Volunteers of America (VOA) to the Spokane affiliate.


Marilee Roloff reads to Emily.

For her, reading is a mini-retreat, a time to imagine, hope and explore.  She grew up in Creston, the daughter of an English teacher and librarian, instilled with a passion for books and for people.

“If a child can’t read, learning is tough,” said Marilee, executive director of VOA-Spokane for 10 years and founder of Crosswalk for street kids in downtown Spokane in 1985. 

“Children’s books today are better and smarter than the Dick and Jane reading books of the 1950s.  They challenge children to think about their beliefs and values, to think beyond themselves,” she said.

The first 20,000 books are given out through the Christmas Bureau, which the VOA helps sponsor.

“I love to see children receive a book for Christmas,” Marilee affirmed.

Other books go to low-income children through more than 40 agencies, and VOA programs such as Crosswalk, Alexandria’s House and Words Travel. 

The books arrive at the VOA Thrift Store warehouse once or twice a year in gaylords, boxes of 2,000 books requiring a forklift to move.  Volunteers go there and help sort the books by age group, paper/hardback, and focus—for example, Harry Potter, Clifford, and other popular titles.

The boxes include educational toys, face paint and other gift items VOA uses for special occasions, such as parties for foster children, Clifford parties, Harry Potter parties and Kids’ Day at Riverfront Park.

Some also go to Virginia Beebe, a public health nurse in St. Maries, Idaho, who gives out books through a literacy program.

In addition to explaining the distribution of books, Marilee offered an overview of VOA-Spokane’s programs: Crosswalk, Project Safe Place, Alexandria’s House, Aston/Bleck Apartments and Flaherty House for youth; subsidized housing for people with HIV and AIDS; three apartment facilities for people with mental health struggles; Hope House for women, plus community outreach through Passages’ parent support project, the “I Remember Mama” Luncheon and the Christmas Bureau.

She said Crosswalk serves about 1,000 homeless youth in downtown Spokane each year.  Hope House serves nearly 500 women, the Transitional Programs take in five to six people at a time.  The Passages program has a waiting list.  Emergency Assistance helps 500 a year. 

VOA has taken on Project Safe Place in Coeur d’Alene, because homeless youth go back and forth between that and Crosswalk.

“Funding for everything in the nonprofit world is chaotic now.  Sometimes we don’t know where funds will come from, but something pops up,” she said, noting that the result of federal and state cuts for mental health and social services means nonprofits serving people have less capacity.  “Imagine what the cost of one day of the War in Iraq would cover if spent on human services.”

For example, other nonprofits once provided staff to evaluate and treat youth, but their funds have been cut, so they can no longer come to Crosswalk. 

Even when funds are steady, it’s like a cut, because more funds are needed to keep up with inflation.

With the juggling of funds and services, Marilee appreciates that the books are a steady service.

As a volunteer agency, VOA recently established an award to honor Sister of Providence Loretta Marie Marceau of the founding board of the Downtown Women’s Shelter in 1998.  Sister Loretta Marie has raised thousands of dollars, never giving up hope in difficult times, Marilee said.

At the Hope House Fashion Show on Oct. 20, VOA gave three bronze medallions made in her likeness, by artist Steve Gevurtz, as an award for compassion and service to women at Hope House.

The 2006 recipients were Sister Loretta Marie, Lynn Everson of the Regional Health District, and Mike Yates, a retired police officer on the VOA Board of Directors.

Marilee appreciates working with staff and volunteers because they are “kind-hearted people on a mission,” and always seeking new people to join them.

Crosswalk, Marilee said, always needs more churches, agencies, businesses or individuals to provide meals.

“We have become the family for many teens,” she said. 

Some come at 15 and are still there at 19.  They attend school, eat and stay overnight—the overnight program is just until they are 18.  Then some go to Flaherty House or Hope House.

Crosswalk programs help some go back home, others find foster care or enter residential treatment.  The rest keep coming and attach with adults who volunteer or provide meals.

“Human services are about relationships.  We can talk about social service models and theories, but it’s always about relationships,” Marilee said she has learned in 30 years of social service work.

An example of that are volunteers from a teachers’ sorority who come to the Christmas Bureau to help parents select books for their children.  Some parents know what their children would like because they read to them, but others don’t know what reading level to choose.

Volunteer teachers watch to see who may need a suggestion.  Then they begin a conversation and ask what grade the child is in and what the child’s interests are.

Marilee added that the Christmas Bureau is open Mondays to Saturdays, Dec. 7 to 20.

Now that it is at the Fairgrounds, she is glad that people no longer have to stand in line outside in the cold.  The process is computerized, moves quickly, and the wait is all inside.

The Giving Tree for Crosswalk, Alexandria’s House and the Downtown Senior Center at Nordstrom’s for 15 years will be in VOA’s lobby at 525 W. Second.

People interested in giving a gift can call, email or stop by for a tag to purchase a gift before Dec. 18.

For information, call 624-2378.