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Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

Valley network connects groups to help  homeless students

From volunteering with Central Valley School District, MJ Bolt and community leaders began connecting people, congregations, education, city council, state representatives and nonprofits in 2012 as the Greater Valley Support Network (GVSN).

Spokane Valley Support Network
Diann Ross, MJ Bolt and David Ross are among the leaders of the Greater Valley Support Network.

“We need to reach outside our ‘silos’ to address needs unique to Spokane Valley,” she said.  “We did not want to reinvent anything but to partner to share resources.”

At 9:30 a.m., second Thursdays, about 40 people gather from the Spokane Valley area to the Idaho border and south to Rockford. Its email list includes 230 people.

GVSN seeks to be a caring, responsive network, working to meet community needs.  They seek to promote well-being and empower people in need by partnering to foster solutions.

“Many who come deal directly with people in need,” MJ said. “We have no funds as of now.  Everyone is a volunteer.”

In 2009, the HEART in HAND Program was organized through the Central Valley PTSA Council to help those identified in the school district’s HEART Program (Homeless Education and Resource Team). The federal McKinney Vento Act mandates identifying students who are homeless or in transitional housing, so schools can transport them to school from wherever they live, make sure they are fed through school meal programs and access other assistance related to school.

HEART in HAND partners with the school’s HEART program to assist with other needs, such as rent, clothing, gas, utilities and school expenses.

HEART in HAND was created when MJ’s pastor at  One, a Spokane Valley church, talked with her about doing something to help local children in need, in addition to Christmas shoe boxes they send to other countries.  She then asked the school district about how many students were homeless or in transitional housing to learn how great the needs were.

“It was evident we needed a year-round, greater-than-church presence to help,” she said.

“Spokane Valley does not have shelters or access for students to have showers outside of schools,” said MJ, who is on the Central Valley School District Board.  “Students may come to school smelling like smoke from a campfire.  They might not have eaten breakfast, so schools have breakfast programs.”

There are few places for families to go in Spokane Valley when they need a meal, so Food 4 Thought, a weekend student meal program through Spokane Valley Partners, now offers meals for days students are not in school. 

We decided there was need for people and agencies with resources to meet and talk,” she said.

Steve Brown of Spokane Valley Partners and the Homeless Coalition and MJ started meeting with other leaders in November 2012.  Dave and Diann Ross of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints (LDS) public affairs started meeting with the group in March.  They joined MJ for The Fig Tree interview.

MJ, who grew up in Weiser, Idaho, and graduated from Mead High School, has lived in Spokane Valley for 12 years.  Since her children entered school, she has been involved in the schools.

At Ponderosa Elementary School, she worked with teachers to help children in need by creating the Pat Thompson Memorial Fund to help families with gas, heat and other needs. 

Nearly 300 students were identified in Central Valley School District in 2009.  At the end of the last school year, West Valley, Central Valley and East Valley schools identified more than 800 students who are homeless, in transitional housing or doubled up with family.

Diann said, “We look around and the area looks pretty, but there is a subculture of people in need.”

MJ said homelessness is complex.  So last year GVSN identified five issues and set up teams. 

• The housing team has found need for emergency and transitional housing, and for more low-income housing.  They will help Family Promise recruit nine host congregations and more support congregations to expand in the Spokane Valley.

• The health team is working on organizing medical services and health education to focus on childhood obesity and nutrition.

• The mentoring team seeks volunteers to connect with schools to advocate for and tutor students.  

• The community resources and networking team is developing a network for resources and people to connect with those in need. 

• The food team decided to promote Food 4 Thought and Adopt-A-Student to double the number of meals for students. 

Every GVSN meeting has time for teams to meet. MJ said meetings start and end on time because participants are busy.  Her goal is to  build collaboration.

Because issues are complex, GVSN seeks to find “real needs so we offer more than bandaids,” MJ said.  “We need to be conscious of what we do so we make a difference and do not make a problem worse. 

Diann added that GVSN is also concerned about the elderly and ill, as well as school children.

Dave said that through GVSN, people are finding unity and friendships are developing.

He and Diann moved to Spokane Valley in 1995, establishing a financial services business that runs itself.  That gives them time to volunteer in the community. Dave does outreach to connect with other churches. 

GVSN collaborated with Food 4 Thought, helping organizations partner to reach 120 students for weekend meals.  GVSN, Food 4 Thought and the LDS church held a food drive in September to provide more food to increase the number of students served.

GVSN uses a free online tool to list partners and their resources in jobs, housing, dental and other services.  It also lists families’ needs partners post when it seems there are no resources available.

Spokane is expanding its website of resources. 

MJ said it is easy to partner with Spokane Valley schools because some have initiatives to address issues outside school that affect learning.  When a counselor or teacher learns a family cannot pay rent and has needs, they can use the website to help find resources.

MJ said the strength is in who is at the table: “We have an amazing caring community,” she said. 

Diann pointed out that there is much duplication in nonprofits because churches and nonprofits often work on their own and may be territorial.  In addition, funds often come for specific purposes.

MJ believes God is involved and contributes to successes she has seen, but does not push that agenda because GVSN works with school districts, secular and government organizations.

Among the faith communities involved include Seventh-day Adventist, Latter-day Saints, Spokane Valley United Methodist, Redeemer Lutheran, Spokane Valley Baptist, Opportunity Christian Fellowship, One and Valley Assembly of God churches.

“Churches and nonprofits have differences, but it’s about how we come together on what we can agree to do,” she said.

Diann said, “Despite differences, groups find similarities so we can work together.”

MJ seeks to create an environment for discussions that empowers the committees.

To build unity into discussions, participants are asked to frame disagreements constructively, think before speaking, respect the contributions of others, ask for clarification and give others “equal air time.”

For information, call 995-8107 or email

Copyright © November 2014 - The Fig Tree