Friendship connects locals with struggling families in Pontiac

A friendship between a Farmington Hills woman and an advocate for people who are homeless brought holiday cheer this year to Pontiac families in need.

Linda Larsen said she invited Kimber Bishop-Yanke, chair of the Oakland County Poverty and Homelessness Task Force, to a virtual meeting with friends on Zoom. The group felt they could adopt five families.

Linda Larsen
Linda Larsen’s Farmington Hills garage served as a collection point for items going to families in Pontiac. (contributed)

However, Bishop-Yanke had a goal of helping 175 families for the holidays. She asked if they could do more. And so they did.

“We reached out to our networks,” Larsen said. “We had our friends, friends of friends, asking, ‘How can we help?’.”

Before long, they had enough support to sponsor 10 families, and then 15. When the wish lists arrived, they were for simple things. A typical list for a child, for instance, included a winter coat or warm boots.

“Being a mom in Oakland County and knowing the gifts our kids get, it was heartbreaking,” Larsen said. “I pictured moms all over Oakland County cleaning our their closets, their basements, and their kids’ bedrooms, and they just started arriving at my house and dropping things off.”

Holiday collection evolves

So many beautiful things made their way into Larsen’s garage, that she told Bishop-Yanke to send anyone who was sponsoring a family to stop by and pick up gifts. Many donors would share their own stories of growing up in poverty and the joy they felt when volunteers would drop off boxes of Christmas gifts and food.

“People were going out and buying things brand new,” Larsen said. “I had one lady bring me a box of winter coats from Costco. They would drop things off and ask, ‘Okay, what else do you need?’.”

What began as a holiday effort evolved into finding more specific items for families recently placed in housing, like sheets and dishes and blankets. Larsen has high praise for Bishop-Yanke, who said the Task Force came out of an effort to find services two years ago for a friend’s former student who was sleeping in a car.

“I found it challenging to get anywhere,” she said. “I got so frustrated that I ended up calling (State Rep.) Christine Greig.”

Greig agreed with her that people weren’t paying enough attention to the issue and offered to bring electeds into the picture. About 10-15 attended a meeting during which Rep. Brenda Carter, who represents Pontiac, offered to start a House caucus on poverty and homelessness.

Bishop-Yanke also agreed to help Carter launch a task force with a mission to create greater awareness.

“Very few people realize we have 2,400 students who are homeless in Oakland County schools,” she said. “That could mean doubled up with someone else, being in a shelter or a hotel.”

There are very few resources for those students and their families, no family shelter and very few places for anyone who is homeless to land, even for a night. Bishop-Yanke spoke with one Pontiac teacher who was washing her students’ clothes in her own home.

“I used a grant to buy a washing machine and dryer for Pontiac High School,” she said. “It was delivered on the day the schools shut down (due to COVID-19).”

COVID-19 challenges

The pandemic has also affected home delivery of fresh, healthy food for families who can’t get to pantries. The launch date was set for March 21, a time when the virus was spreading across the state.

“We were somewhat flexible,” Bishop-Yanke said. “We had many people on board, and we were able to raise $6,000 and to get names of 250 families, so we delivered really good food… fruits and vegetables, meats, probably like two weeks of groceries. We thought this was probably a temporary thing.”

The group ended up delivering food to 100-150 families throughout the summer, until Lighthouse of Oakland County took over. Along the way, drivers learned about more family needs. The group found more beds for a family sleeping in one bed in one room, a washer/dryer for a mom with four kids, and more.

Bishop-Yanke said the holiday sponsorship program was organized through a small nonprofit she owns. Some families came via school referrals, others through word of mouth. Connecting them with sponsors, she said, lifted some of the barriers that can come with giving.

“I think people want to help,” she said. “I think when they see the actual family, they have a relationship and an experience. Then they tell their friends, who want to be a part of that. I think it’s just sort of bringing it to people’s awareness.”

Greig, who represented Farmington and Farmington Hills in Lansing for six years, said the Task Force has spent a lot of time opening eyes to the issues of homelessness in Oakland County. She learned a lot, she said, as director of the Farmington/Farmington Hills Education Foundation, which sponsors Operation Common Good, a nonprofit that helps Farmington Schools families.

“I knew it was an issue in our district, but it wasn’t until Operation Common Good formed that I realized what a problem homelessness was in our schools, and how disruptive it is,” she said. “It’s hard to move to that next level of success when your foundation isn’t stable.”

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