In the fall of 1956 a young woman with four small children moved to Oskaloosa, Iowa, where my family lived. I don’t remember her name and wouldn’t divulge it if I did, so I’ll call her Carol. She came from another State, where she and her children had been battered by her abusive husband. She had run away to escape and give her children a chance at a better life.
Carol had no job, no place to live, no clothing except what she and her children were wearing, no food, and no money. In 1956 there were no shelters for victims of domestic abuse, and there were no government agencies that offered assistance to anyone from out of state.
In desperation, Carol went to several of the local churches in Oskaloosa and asked for help with food and clothing just for her children – she asked nothing for herself. In each case she was turned away because she was not a member of the church’s congregation.
Someone told my mother, Esther Long, about the family’s plight. Her heart was touched and she wanted to help but had no money to give. After pondering and praying about what she could do, she came up with an idea.
First Mom called her friend Elizabeth Wilson, who owned an apartment building with one vacant apartment. She explained Carol’s plight and asked if Elizabeth would rent her the apartment and let her pay the rent as soon as she got a job and a paycheck. Elizabeth agreed, and Carol’s family had a place to live.
Next Mom called the local furniture stores to see if they would donate some used furniture. In those days the furniture stores took used furniture as a trade-in on new furniture. They had new furniture in their main-floor display rooms and used furniture in the basement or upstairs. Often the used furniture didn’t sell, and they would donate it to charitable organizations or haul it to the dump. Consequently, the store managers willingly responded to Mom’s plea. One donated a sofa and chairs, another a dinette set, another beds, and another a dresser and chest-of-drawers. Now Carol’s family had furniture to make their apartment a home.
But Mom wasn’t done yet. She called all of the grocery stores in town and asked them to donate food. Then she and Dad (Jim Long) drove to the stores to pick up their donations and take them to Carol’s apartment. Carol cried as they carried in bag after bag of groceries – enough to last nearly a month. Not only could her children eat, but there was plenty for her too.
Still Mom wasn’t done. She called all of her friends and asked them to donate clothing, sheets, blankets, towels, or anything else they could spare that would help make the family more comfortable. Her friends caught the spirit and called their friends, as well. Soon boxes and bags full of clothing and linens were streaming into our house. There were clothes not only for all of the children, but also for Carol. And there were sheets and blankets for the beds, and towels and washcloths for the bathroom. Carol was overwhelmed by the generosity of all the people who had contributed to the needs of her family, and especially by Mom’s willingness to coordinate it all for a stranger.
For Mom, helping this family brought great joy. It was the seed that germinated into The Helping Hands Club. Mom realized that there were probably many people like Carol who “fell through the cracks” because there was no source of help for them. She decided to do something about it.
She called several of her friends who had helped provide for Carol’s family, and asked them to help her form a club to help people. They met at our house the first time to give the club a name, establish bylaws, and elect officers. The name they chose was “The Helping Hands Club”. They decided to choose a needy person or family each month to help with whatever they needed. Mom was elected as President.
For the next four years they helped many individuals and families who were not eligible for assistance from any other source. They elicited donations of food, clothing and furniture as they had for Carol. The club became so well known in town for its acts of kindness and charity that churches, business owners, and individuals would refer people to it for help.
At the end of that four years, Mom asked the members to elect someone else as President and give her a rest. For a year or two the club continued to help people. Unfortunately the later presidents were not as committed to the mission of the club as Mom had been, and gradually the club diminished to just another social club. When it stopped doing what she had created it to do, she finally dropped out.
Although The Helping Hands Club only functioned for a few years, it blessed many lives – those who received service from it, the members who helped provide service to others, and those who witnessed the good it did and were touched by it. I was among the latter, and I have tried to carry on Mom’s legacy of service. The Helping Hands Club is one of my fondest memories of my mother. It is my prayer that it may be an inspiration to her grandchildren, great grandchildren, and future generations of her descendants, as well.