Dana Hawman introduced our speaker, Rosie Portugal-Brastad, director of Project HELP. Although Project HELP is under the wing of the Apache Junction Unified School District, the community outreach program is fully funded by donations. Our Superstition Mountain Rotary Club is a consistent supporter, and we appreciate having Rosie come in to update us on how our money is being put to work.

 

Project HELP is designed to meet the needs of AJUSD students whose economic/environmental condition may affect their general welfare and opportunity to attain educational success. The program has been in existence for 44 years. Rosie has held the position of director of Project HELP for one year; “I’ve always prayed that I would have a job that wasn’t a job because I enjoyed it so much, and this is it.”

 

Rosie opened her presentation with a quote from the first Project HELP coordinator, Carmen Huerta, “These children are living proof that when we help them and let them know that there is someone who cares, they can grow up to create a better life for themselves and their families.” That’s what Project HELP is all about; helping the students of AJUSD whose families cannot afford the food, clothing, school supplies, or household and hygiene supplies that they need to help their children be successful at school and in life. “If they succeed in school, they will succeed in life.”

 

Illustrating the point, Rosie told us about a young man who wanted to adopt a family for Christmas last year, but he wanted to deliver the gifts himself at midnight, like Santa, and also take the family to breakfast in the morning. “When I was little and in elementary school in Apache Junction,” he explained, “Carmen Huerta and her large family would get into their station wagon at midnight and go deliver all the gifts for Project HELP. Then the people who adopted the families would take them out to breakfast in the morning. I always thought that Santa brought all the gifts, until finally, when I got older, my mother told me the presents were from Project HELP. I am now a successful businessman, I have a family, and I want to give back to the community that helped us out – that helped me become the man I am today.”

 

Some of the programs within Project HELP include:

  • Back-to-School: Every child who qualifies receives new school clothing and shoes, new backpacks and school supplies.

  • Holiday Meals, including Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter: Baskets for families include canned, bottled, and bagged staples as well as donated gift cards for local grocery stores to cover the fresh meat, dairy, and produce that are not available through the food bank.

  • Christmas: In addition to the holiday meal, children are asked for two Christmas gift wishes. “I tell the parents, ‘This is just a wish!’ But nine times out of ten, our community members call and say, ‘What do you need?’ and children get their wishes.” Children also receive sleepers, books, stocking stuffers, and a family game.

  • Pantry and Thrift Shop: Families who qualify can shop at Project HELP once a month for food, gently used clothing, small household items, and toys – including some new toys and cards (donated by Hallmark) that parents can give for birthdays.

 

Project HELP can also help with emergency financial assistance. For example, if the family car breaks down, and they have to ignore the electric bill in order to pay for car repairs so they can get to work and keep their jobs, Project HELP can assist with the utility payment. In circumstances like this, the payment is made directly to the service provider on behalf of the family. Project HELP will not pay credit card, cablevision, or other non-essential bills.

 

One of the unique aspects of Project HELP is that family assistance is not just a handout; parents are required to volunteer for some type of community service, two hours for every time they visit the food pantry or thrift store and one hour of volunteer time for every $25 paid to bills. Although parents are encouraged to volunteer in their child’s school, they can select where they want to volunteer, whether it is the AJ Public Library, AJ Food Bank, or any other local non-profit organization. Parents must be current with their volunteer hours in order to maintain eligibility for assistance.

 

Currently, Project HELP is working with three families who are living in tents at the state park. “Tomorrow, one of those families will be out of the park and into their own place.” That particular family has 3 daughters and has been living in a tent since August. With the help of a local church, Project HELP is covering the deposits needed to get the family into the new place; it will be up to the family to maintain their living expenses after that. “My goal is to get all three families into their own places.”

 

Rosie has expanded the effectiveness of Project HELP through networking with other local charities, building relationships with the AJ Food Bank, Genesis, the Hope Center, and more. If a family contacts Project HELP for assistance, but they don’t have students in AJUSD, Rosie will still talk with them, find out what they need, and refer them to another organization that can help. Likewise, if Project HELP receives an overabundance of a particular type of item – for instance baby food and clothing – she will pass those items to a local organization that can use them. At the end of the school year, Project HELP keeps just enough food to start the new school year, and gives the rest to the AJ Food Bank. As she tells them, “I feed [the students] during the school year, but you feed them over the summer! Why wouldn’t I help you help our kids?”